Petroleum spills are a fairly common occurrence in New York State. By the NYS Department of Conservation’s own estimate, it receives about 16,000 reports annually of spills through its Spill Hotline (800-457-7362). While most of these reports are for releases of small quantities that are cleaned up quickly, some are substantial and require a significant cleanup.
The obligation to report petroleum spills is generally covered by New York’s Petroleum Bulk Storage (PBS) regulations and New York’s Oil Spill Act, which is also known as the Navigation Law. Section 613.8 of the PBS regulations, which essentially is limited to limited to regulated bulk tanks, requires “[a]ny person with knowledge” of a petroleum spill to report it to the Department within two hours of discovery through the Spill Hotline. The reporting requirement under Navigation Law § 175 also requires reporting within two hours of discovery, but applies to “[a]ny person responsible for causing a discharge.” It is not limited to bulk tanks, but covers “discharges,” which essentially are defined by Navigation Law § 172(8) as releases of petroleum into State waters of the state or onto lands from which the releases might flow or drain into State waters.
Keep in mind that the penalty for failure to report a spill is pretty severe: violations are an offense punishable by a $25,000 fine under Navigation Law § 192.
Fortunately, the Department recognizes that it doesn’t make sense to burden the Spill Hotline with minor and not a threat to the environment. A spill doesn’t have to be reported when all of the following conditions are met:
- The quantity is known to be less than 5 gallons; and
- The spill is contained and under the control of the spiller; and
- The spill has not and will not reach the State’s water or any land; and
- The spill is cleaned up within 2 hours of discovery.
A spill is considered to have not impacted land if it occurs on a paved surface such as asphalt or concrete. A spill in a dirt or gravel parking lot is considered to have impacted land and is reportable.
While most times reported spills require little more than a cleanup and signoff from the Department, sometimes spills require a substantial cleanup or management. In those cases, the Department will send a demand letter for the cleanup to who it believes is the discharger. Often times, the issue of who really is the discharger is complicated, which can be a real issue when cleanup costs, which can be considerable, are at issue. If the Department considers you or your company to be a discharger, you may want to seek legal guidance.