Clean Water:

Better Information and Targeted Prevention Efforts Could Enhance Spill Management in the St. Clair-Detroit River Corridor

GAO-06-639: Published: Jun 7, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 7, 2006.

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Spills of oil and hazardous substances in the St. Clair-Detroit River corridor have degraded this border area between the United States and Canada and are a potential threat to local drinking water supplies. Within the United States such spills are reported to the National Response Center (NRC), and in Canada to the Ontario Spills Action Centre. This report discusses (1) how many oil and hazardous substance spills greater than 50 gallons (or of an unknown volume) were reported in the corridor from 1994 to 2004, and how accurately reported spills reflect the extent of actual spills; (2) what processes are used to notify parties of spills, and if they contain explicit requirements for reporting times and spill magnitude; and (3) the extent of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Coast Guard's spill prevention efforts and enforcement activities in the corridor from 1994 to 2004.

The NRC received 991 spill reports and the Ontario Spills Action Centre received 157 reports of spills in the corridor from 1994 through 2004, but these reports do not accurately portray the actual number or volume of spills. Many spills go unreported by responsible parties because they do not understand or fail to comply with reporting requirements. Further, multiple reports for the same spill are often recorded by NRC and provided to EPA and the Coast Guard for investigation. EPA does not remove all duplicate spill reports or update its data after investigating spills. Coast Guard officials update their spill data after investigations but they are unable to update spill volume estimates due to automated system limitations. GAO also found that, according to agency data sets, other events--combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and industrial permit violations--occurred more frequently than spills in the corridor. While data on industrial permit violations and CSOs might be subject to the same limitations as the spill data because the data are self reported and facilities may not report all of these events, spills may be particularly subject to underreporting because they are not part of a structured program as CSOs and industrial permit violations are. There are multiple parties involved in spill notification in the corridor and agreements outlining U.S.-Canadian notification processes are not explicit about reporting times or the magnitude of spills that warrant notification. The coast guards of each country have agreed to notify one another of spills primarily when a joint response may be needed. Another agreement between Michigan and Ontario officials calls for notifying each other of spills that may have a joint impact. We reviewed six selected spill incidents that illustrate the various ways that notification can occur. The drinking water facility operators we contacted on the U.S. side of the corridor had differing perspectives on current notification processes, and the majority expressed concern that their facilities could be contaminated by spills if they are not notified in a timely manner. Finally, efforts have been made to develop informal notification processes between individual industries or trade associations and drinking water facilities. EPA's spill prevention program is limited and the Coast Guard addresses spill prevention as part of other compliance efforts. EPA's prevention program addresses only oil spills. Further, EPA is uncertain of which specific facilities are subject to regulation under its spill prevention program, and conducts varying numbers of inspections per year. EPA inspections uncovered significant spill prevention deficiencies, whereas the Coast Guard's inspections revealed minor issues. The agencies issued a total of 16 penalties for spills and program noncompliance during the period we reviewed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA expressed agreement with the recommendation, and has responded by collecting information on the number and types of facilities that may be regulated under the spill prevention, control, and countermeasure program. They also initiated contacts with the Departments of Commerce and Energy and Small Business Administration to better understand the universe of regulated entities.

    Recommendation: To better utilize spill prevention resources, the EPA Administrator should consider gathering information on which facilities are regulated under its spill prevention program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA agreed with the recommendation, noting that it has met with Coast Guard officials to discuss the best ways to update spill information in the National Response Center database, and on how best to ensure that accurate and timely information is available to users of the database.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that spill data are available to target their inspection and enforcement efforts, and to improve the overall effectiveness of spill notification, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5; and that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Commander of District 9 to determine whether existing spill notification processes can be improved or modified to provide reduced and consistent notification time frames.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Unable to resolve status after repeated attempts

    Recommendation: To better ensure that spill data are available to target their inspection and enforcement efforts, and to improve the overall effectiveness of spill notification, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5; and that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Commander of District 9 to determine whether existing spill notification processes can be improved or modified to provide reduced and consistent notification time frames.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA agreed with the recommendation, noting that to improve the spill data issues cited in the report, Region 5 developed its Web Emergency Operation Center, which tracks and documents all spills reported to NRC and can query data for enforcement and compliance assistance purposes.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that spill data are available to target their inspection and enforcement efforts, and to improve the overall effectiveness of spill notification, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5; and that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Commander of District 9 to maintain and update spill information to include the results of investigations and explore the feasibility of updating spill information maintained by the NRC.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Unable to resolve status after repeated attempts.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that spill data are available to target their inspection and enforcement efforts, and to improve the overall effectiveness of spill notification, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5; and that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Commander of District 9 to maintain and update spill information to include the results of investigations and explore the feasibility of updating spill information maintained by the NRC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA agreed with the recommendation, indicating that Region 5 has reassessed the frequency and extensiveness of its inspections for FY 2007. It subsequently developed goals for an improved program for FY 2008.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct Region 5 to develop goals for the frequency and extensiveness of its inspections.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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