Concepts on Contaminant Spills and Emergency Response

Source: CNN

Source: CNN

Many industrial chemicals and contaminated wastewaters pose a risk to the environment if inappropriately stored, handled or discharged. The use of a comprehensive emergency response plan can help lessen environmental impacts, minimize the cost and frequency of production downtime, aid site clean-up, reduce occupational health and safety incidents and enhance community attitudes. The plan should also help prevent accidental fluid spills, leaks, and emergencies that could pollute the atmosphere, groundwater, soil, wetlands or waterways.

This note applies to any chemical spillage or contaminated water that may pose a threat to water resources (including aquatic ecosystems and water supply sources), which may affect human health, amenity, environmental or economic values.

This note recommends the preparation, maintenance and implementation of an effective Emergency Response Plan (ERP) by anyone who stores, transports, handles or uses chemicals or other substances that have the potential to contaminate water resources.


Type of contaminant spill posing an environmental concern

The risk that contaminants pose to water resource quality and values varies based on factors including:

  • nature of the contaminant and its toxicity to living things;
  • spill volume;
  • timeliness and effectiveness of spill management measures;
  • contaminant’s persistence in the environment – whether it will evaporate, be filtered out in soils,
  • degrade on contact with soil micro-organisms, or move under the influence of gravity or rainfall to cause harm;
  • location of the spill relative to sensitive receptors in the environment;
  • mobility of the contaminant (including solubility, viscosity, adsorption to soil particles, and the influence of rainfall);
  • whether the contaminant will react with substances present in the environment and the subsequent outcome; and
  • risk of downstream harm to living things from exposure to contaminant residue (ie the degree of toxicity ranging from mild discomfort through to death).


Emergency Response Plan (ERP)

The main key concepts related to ERP will be presented here:


1. A comprehensive ERP should be prepared, maintained and used by anyone handling, managing or using toxic or hazardous substances. It should be easy to read, logically formatted and provide sufficient detail.

2. Operational plans should ensure that the user is able to quickly and effectively respond in the event of a contaminant spill or other serious emergencies.

3. The ERP should be periodically reviewed (at least every five years) to ensure it remains up to date and effective.

4. The most important concern after making the site safe should be to contain then recover as much of the spilt chemical as practical prior to any escape of residues into the environment.


5. The site operator should aim to eliminate or reduce the probability of an unplanned release of contaminants and reduce the degree of damage that could occur to the environment.


6. An ERP is important for any organization handling potentially polluting substances. An effective ERP means being well prepared for accidents and emergencies. It should include an assessment of risk scenarios leading to spills and the probable impacts, site incident response manuals, staff training in incident response protocols, continuous availability of suitable equipment to protect workers and mitigate the effects of chemical spills, installation and maintenance of warning and emergency contacts signage, plans for containment and disposal of contaminated fluids if there is a large spill or fire. Plans should be available for site drainage systems and where they discharge should be defined.

Content of Emergency Response Plans (ERP)

7. The following details should be included in the ERP:

a. Purpose of the plan

b. A contaminant inventory

c. A site layout diagram

d. Description of potential emergencies

e. Risk assessments

f. Employee safety the prime concern

g. Allocate responsibility

h. Communications

i. Backup resources

j. Test emergency procedures

k. Notification of authorities

l. Notification of neighbors

m. Evacuation

n. Incident Investigation

o. Media interest

Response to incidents or emergencies

8. The type of response will depend on the nature and amount of substances discharged, the environmental values (water users and ecosystems) present in the surrounding area and the risk of transmittal of the hazard to a receptor.

 9. The following three-tier Impact Classification (high, moderate and low) is aimed at indicating the severity of the incident, so that appropriate resources can be deployed in response to the emergency.

Emergency response review

10. After a significant incident or near miss, an internal review of the effectiveness of the ERP and a risk assessment of the workplace should occur. These reviews help to determine how similar emergencies can be avoided and subsequently improve the effectiveness of the ERP. Following an incident, necessary changes should be made to improve the ERP, response personnel training updated and validation exercises undertaken. This is all aimed at avoiding or minimising the impact of future incidents.


Visit the source for more information:

Contaminant Spills - Emergency Response (Feb. 2016)

Department of Water - Government of Western Australia


Saul Montoya

Saul Montoya es Ingeniero Civil graduado de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú en Lima con estudios de postgrado en Manejo e Ingeniería de Recursos Hídricos (Programa WAREM) de la Universidad de Stuttgart con mención en Ingeniería de Aguas Subterráneas y Hidroinformática.

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