Environmental Incident Response Management

Environmental response activities conducted within the first few hours following a spill or a release are critical, as they can have significant impact on the extent of damages and the overall cost of cleanup/remediation. Regardless of the magnitude of the event, environmental incident response generally includes four steps: incident/hazard communication, spill control, spill containment, and cleanup/remediation. Successful management and execution of these steps depends on pre-incident planning and preparation.

Incident/Hazard Communication

It is essential that the nature of an environmental incident is quickly and effectively communicated to key personnel as soon as a release or spill is discovered. In cases involving injuries, fire or other catastrophic events, the first call should be to local emergency response services or 911. Releases may also need to be reported to the National Response Center (NRC) and/or appropriate federal/state regulatory agencies.

When a release or spill is initially reported, the following information, at a minimum, should be communicated: location, date, and time that the incident occurred; name and contact information for the responsible party; source and cause of the release/spill; types and quantities of spilled or released materials; medium (e.g., soil, water, air) impacted by the release; and weather conditions. This and other pertinent information are important in assembling and dispatching the appropriate personnel to respond to the incident.

After an incident response team is established, Safety Data Sheets for the released material should be obtained and distributed – so that responding personnel can select appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and that other necessary emergency response equipment can be dispatched to the incident site.

During an incident, well-planned and effective communications with the affected community – such as alerts and warnings; directives about sheltering-in-place, evacuation and curfews; information about the response status; etc. – can help ensure public safety, protect property, elicit cooperation, and instill public confidence.

All of these incident/hazard communication activities are often conducted simultaneously.

Spill Control

After the hazards have been assessed and conditions are determined to be safe, it may be possible to take certain actions to control and secure the scene before the incident response team arrives. Whenever possible and appropriate, shutting off potential sources of ignition and/or isolating heat sources could prevent fire; and, if safe, closing a valve, placing a container under the leak, or straightening a tipped container may be a simple  action that can reduce the magnitude of the incident. After the incident response team has appeared onsite, if the source of the spill is still leaking and cannot be controlled, it may be necessary to stop the source by transferring the materials into appropriate, safe containers.

Spill Containment

Spill containment includes actions to prevent the spread of released materials. These activities are commonly employed by response team personnel and hazardous waste technicians, and include deployment of neutralizers or absorbent materials – such as pads, pillows and booms – starting at the perimeter and working toward the center of the spill. Particular attention should be paid to pathways leading to environmentally sensitive areas, such as floor drains, water supply and drainage conduits which may need to be plugged or bermed.


After the spill has been contained, cleanup/remediation of impacted environmental media can begin. While the cleanup technology implemented at any spill site must be designed for that specific incident, remediation of smaller releases often includes excavation and  disposal of impacted soil, while impacted surface water is frequently collected using vacuum trucks. Recovered impacted media is often disposed at approved facilities (landfills, wastewater treatment plants, etc.). As part of remediation activities, a certain amount of restoration, such as soil backfilling, re-paving, and/or re-seeding may be necessary.

Depending on local regulations, follow-up investigations may be necessary to assess potential soil, surface water or groundwater impacts. These investigations are generally not performed by the response team but rather by environmental consultants and specialists.

Pre-Incident Planning Program

Pre-incident planning and preparation is a crucial step in the effective response to environmental incidents. A well-planned response will help minimize environmental damages and liabilities, as well as limit potential business losses.

It takes considerable time and resources to perform a risk assessment, review hazards or threat scenarios, identify and vet external incident response teams, determine regulatory requirements, develop protective actions, develop emergency procedures, and train personnel. Additionally, after response protocols are developed, the plans must be periodically updated to assure that regulatory requirements are satisfied and that the availability and capabilities of incident response vendors are still in place. To further complicate matters, there has been much consolidation in the emergency environmental response industry in recent years. New vendors have entered the arena, while others no longer exist.

For these reasons, many companies opt to engage incident/spill response management consultants that typically maintain working relationships with a network of multi-disciplined response specialists (emergency environmental spill responders, disaster recovery experts, restoration specialists, environmental consultants, industrial hygienists and indoor air quality consultants, and waste management/disposal experts).

When outsourcing the incident/spill management function of the Pre-Incident Planning Program, one should look for the following offerings:

▪ 24/7 spill notification call number

▪  Immediate call back by a spill response project manager

▪ On-scene coordination – fast response times to site with qualified staff

▪ Established relationships with emergency response contractors

▪ Expertise with federal/state/local regulations

▪ Waste profiling and disposal coordination

▪ Regulatory agency liaison

▪  Engineering evaluation cost analysis

▪  Documentation and report preparation

Emergency Response Services from HETI

HETI has 30-plus years of experience providing emergency response services. Through our special emergency response department, supported by a toll-free hotline, we provide full-service capabilities involving all aspects of incident/spill management – including 24-hour, seven-day-a-week intervention to deal with    environmental emergencies and to mitigate potential environmental impacts. HETI’s staff is supplanted, as required, by a national network of reputable subcontractors with whom we have established working relationships.