Cleaning up on spillage costs

Accidents will happen but Richard Proctor, sales director with Darcy Products, explains how a properly conducted risk assessment can pay dividends when fate or carelessness strikes

Current government legislation relating to the storage of pollutants, if properly enforced, could impact significantly on risks of oil and chemical pollution. Experience over three decades shows that a high proportion of pollution incidents are associated directly with loading or unloading, filling or emptying. Wider adoption of well designed and properly maintained bunding and other protective measures for tanks, drums and areas where liquids are stored will do much to reduce environmental damage from handling accidents.

Financial directors and others primarily concerned with costs have a tendency to believe, or at least to hope, that proper risk assessments and environmental audits can be carried out in-house. Sometimes they can but, given the possible financial penalties and other adverse consequences, it can often be a false economy. In these days of reduced staff levels and short-term contracts, people with the necessary level of experience and technical expertise as well as the time to carry out proper assessment are fairly rare, at least in small to medium-sized organisations. Hence the widespread use of companies able to offer specialised pollution risk assessment.

In assessing risk a properly drawn-up site plan identifying vulnerable areas with particular reference to the drainage system, outfalls and the direction of flow of runoff from the site is a primary requirement. Local knowledge can be a great help, especially in pinpointing areas vulnerable to flooding. Spillages have a perverse tendency to occur in wet weather and the possible effect on apparently secure bunds, sumps and interceptors of abnormal rainfall and/or inflow from nearby rivers, streams, canals or even run-off from flooded fields must never be overlooked.

Another important part of the survey will be the identification of any risk to groundwater. If undetected and allowed to continue for long periods even very minor leakage, particularly from underground pipes or tanks, can cause serious groundwater pollution.
In most cases it is necessary to consider not just the likely consequences of a pollution incident within the confines of the site but also the possible effect on other commercial, industrial or residential premises in the vicinity and on any leisure/recreational activities in nearby rivers, lakes and parks - and of course damage to wildlife. Claims for damage to equipment, fish stocks, loss of income or amenities can be substantial and at very best will result in greatly increased insurance premiums.

Once the initial survey has been completed, a detailed study is carried out covering each individual location, with an itemised breakdown of all hazard elements and the consequences of a spill or leak for the surrounding area. While special attention will obviously be given to areas where oils or other liquid pollutants are stored, risks at point-of-use and the possible consequences of leakage from interconnecting pipework or during transit on vehicles are equally important.

An overall environmental safety plan is drawn up, individually tailored to the needs of the site and the level of perceived risk. As an integral part, close attention is given to established working practices at each location. With a suitable background of extensive field experience, a specialist risk assessment consultant is well placed to locate potential faults and recommend empirically based changes where appropriate. It is surprising how often quite minor alterations to long established routine can significantly reduce incidence of pollution risks especially in minor spills and leaks.

Recommendations will normally include maintaining stocks of adsorbents, booms, etc in quantities sufficient for dealing with small to medium-size incidents entirely from on-site resources and for containing larger spills or leaks until outside help can arrive. Emergency spill kits permanently located at vulnerable sites and/or carried on-board vehicles and fork lifts are usually an important feature of the overall plan. Other proposals will almost certainly include easily and rapidly deployed protection for drains in high-risk areas and booms placed permanently at any outlets from the site into rivers and watercourses.

Knowledge is key
Risk assessment will only bring practical benefits if the people at the sharp end of any spillage know not just what to do but why they are doing it. On-site training in the deployment of adsorbents, booms and related equipment should be an integral component of the environmental protection plan. Time and money spent on structured training with periodic refresher courses will be more than repaid should a major spillage occur.


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