July 17, 2003

Be prepared with a spill management plan

  • Tanker spill prompts Issaquah to develop a contingency plan
    Farallon Consulting


    One year ago, a stretch of Interstate 90 within the city limits of Issaquah was ablaze as a result of a fuel tanker rollover.

    Generally there are two phases of response to a spill of this magnitude, the “emergency response” phase where immediate actions are taken to extinguish the fire and minimize migration and impacts of contaminants, and the “spill response” phase where a cleanup action group coordinates the cleanup of the spill impacts to protect human health and the environment.

    Emergency response services provided by state and local agencies quickly mitigated the initial impacts of the spill and ensuing fire. However, once the inferno had been quelled the media quickly lost interest, even though an intensive effort was still under way to complete the spill response phase of the cleanup.

    Photo courtesy of the Department of Ecology
    Firefighters last year battled an overturned tanker trailer blaze from the westbound lanes of I-90 in Issaquah.

    A spill plan

    A cleanup action group comprising a diverse group of agencies, stakeholders and consultants was organized and worked for about two weeks as part of the spill response phase to facilitate a coordinated, effective and expeditious cleanup of the spill impacts.

    Fortunately, the city of Issaquah’s infrastructure was not affected by the spill since the release was largely confined to soil in the I-90 median and the surface water in the associated storm water drainage system for I-90.

    However, it brought to the city’s attention a need to have a comprehensive spill contingency management plan (SCMP) in place to better organize and coordinate its available resources if a similar spill event was to occur within the city limits. Effective coordination of resources during both the emergency response and spill response phases of a cleanup can significantly reduce both the immediate and potential long-term environmental impacts resulting from a spill.

    For example, if the tanker spill had occurred during a rainstorm in the winter months, significant amounts of gasoline would have been transported in the storm water drainage system to the local creeks and lakes in the spill area.

    Without readily available information regarding surface drainage patterns and systems, local knowledge of creeks in the immediate area of the spill, and the resources to respond in a quick and effective manner, the potential impacts of a spill such as the I-90 tanker rollover could have been an unmitigated disaster.

    However, dry weather allowed for the excavation of the majority of impacted soils in the median, and containment and treatment of surface water containing residual gasoline, oil and fire retardant products generated during fire-fighting activities.

    fire-fighting foam
    Photo courtesy of the Department of Ecology
    The cleanup group devised an aeration system to protect surface water from the fire-fighting foam.

    The purpose of a SCMP is to document the specific requirements, protocols, responsibilities and materials necessary for a spill response team to conduct an emergency response to a spill of hazardous materials within a specific area, whether at a privately owned industrial facility or on public property within city limits.


    Most city departments have contingency plans for notification within their own departments, but more often than not, there is no comprehensive spill plan that allows for the prompt notification and coordination of resources between departments, agencies or private businesses in the event of an emergency.

    Photo courtesy of Farallon
    Contaminated soil was excavated during the spill response phase in the median of I-90.

    An effective SCMP is designed to guide city officials from various departments — including public works, engineering and the fire department — and to coordinate with county, state and federal environmental and health agencies during the first hours of a spill to enable prompt and proper removal of hazardous substances.

    SCMPs also provide sufficient detail to ensure that the response team is adequately trained and well-prepared to handle the initial phases of spill cleanups ranging from small chronic spills to worst-case-scenario spills (e.g., the volume of the largest aboveground storage tank within city limits, tanker truck size limits).

    Typical considerations for cities preparing SCMPs include mapping out and developing specific guidance for the protection of water-supply wells, surface water, and sanitary and storm water drainage systems, which can act as preferential pathways for the migration of hazardous materials during spill events. Other considerations include developing plans for the protection of environmentally sensitive areas such as shoreline, spawning habitat and wetlands.

    In addition, the SCMP can provide responders with a list of specialty consultants for specific situations or chemical hazards, which can be tailored to a facility or a city’s most likely environmental risks. Screening and selection of outside services in the SCMP prior to a spill event allows responders to provide prompt and appropriate selection of resources during both the emergency response and the spill response phases of a spill.

    With proper planning and implementation, the inevitable spills resulting from the storage, use or transport of hazardous compounds can be mitigated before they become environmental disasters.

    Riley Conkin is a principal and partner at Farallon Consulting. The company provided oversight and directed the cleanup action group on behalf of Lee & Estes Trucking during the spill response phase following the I-90 tanker rollover in July 2002. Farallon is currently assisting the city of Issaquah with the development of an SCMP.

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