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Monday, October 28, 2013

Oil and Chemical Spills: Federal Emergency Response Framework

David M. Bearden
Specialist in Environmental Policy

Jonathan L. Ramseur
Specialist in Environmental Policy

Thousands of oil and chemical spills of varying size occur in the United States each year. State and local officials located in proximity to these incidents generally are the first responders and may elevate an incident for federal attention if greater resources are desired. The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, often referred to as the National Contingency Plan (NCP), establishes the procedures for the federal response to oil and chemical spills. The scope of the NCP encompasses discharges of oil into or upon U.S. waters and adjoining shorelines and releases of hazardous substances into the environment. Several hundred toxic chemicals and radionuclides are designated as hazardous substances under the NCP, and other pollutants and contaminants also may fall within the scope of its response authorities.

Unlike most federal emergency response plans that are administrative mechanisms, the NCP is codified in federal regulation and is binding and enforceable. The NCP was developed in 1968 and has been revised on multiple occasions to implement the federal statutory response authorities that Congress has expanded over time. Three federal environmental statutes authorized the development of the NCP: the Clean Water Act, as amended; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, as amended; and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Several executive orders have delegated the presidential response authorities of these statutes to the federal departments and agencies tasked with implementing the NCP. The lead federal agency serves as the On-Scene Coordinator to direct the resources used in a federal response. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generally is the lead agency responsible for coordinating the federal response within the inland zone, and the U.S. Coast Guard generally serves as the lead agency within the coastal zone. However, a response to an incident occurring on a federal facility is coordinated by the federal department or agency that administers the facility.

The NCP established the National Response System (NRS) as a multi-tiered framework for coordinating the roles of 15 federal departments and agencies that serve as standing members of the National Response Team to offer specialized resources and expertise that the On-Scene Coordinator may call upon to carry out a response. The NRS also outlines the framework for integrating the participation of non-federal entities, including state and local officials, the responsible parties, and other private entities who may wish to contribute resources or expertise.

Although the framework of the NRS is the same for responding to discharges of oil or releases of hazardous substances, the NCP establishes separate operational elements for responding to each type of incident, and these elements differ in some respects. The source of federal funding to carry out a response also differs. The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund finances the federal response to a discharge of oil, and the Superfund Trust Fund finances the federal response to a release of a hazardous substance. Monies spent from these trust funds may be recouped from the responsible parties under the liability provisions of the Oil Pollution Act and CERCLA, respectively.

For multi-faceted incidents, such as major disasters or emergencies, the NCP also could be invoked under the National Response Framework (NRF) to address an aspect of an incident involving a discharge of oil or release of a hazardous substance. The NRF is a broader administrative mechanism for coordinating the array of federal emergency response plans. However, the NRF itself is not an operational plan that dictates a step-by-step process. The NRF instead merely may apply the NCP as the operational plan to respond to a discharge of oil or release of a hazardous substance.

This report discusses the statutory authorities of the NCP and relevant executive orders; outlines the federal emergency response framework of the NCP to coordinate federal, state, and local roles; and identifies the funding mechanisms to carry out a federal response to a discharge of oil or a release of a hazardous substance.

Date of Report: October 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R43251
Price: $29.95

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