Communications Break Down Triggers Fine for Late Spill Report

Even in the best trucking operations, communications sometimes break down. One long-time Spill Center client, a truckload carrier with a fleet of 109 company tractors and 440 trailers, was slapped with a hefty fine by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (Mass DEP) after a diesel fuel spill incident in Charlton, Mass.

Company policy is for drivers involved in environmental spills to immediately contact the fleet safety manager, who initiates required regulatory reporting within the time specified by law. In Massachusetts, incidents must be reported by telephone to the DEP within two hours to avoid a citation. But the fleet safety manager didn’t learn about it until the next morning.

The tractor-trailer had run over a piece of metal in the roadway during the night, resulting in a punctured diesel fuel saddle tank. A local police officer noticed the trail of leaking fuel on the pavement and followed it to the moving truck. The officer pulled over the unsuspecting driver, who plugged the leak with a stick. The fire department was called.

The “reportable quantity” of spilled material – the amount requiring a formal incident report – varies from state to state. In Massachusetts, the reportable quantity of any spilled petroleum product is 10 gallons. Other triggers include any release of oil causing a sheen on surface water, which is reportable to Mass DEP and to the EPA in the National Response Center.

When the fire department arrived at the scene, an inflatable swimming pool was used to contain the leaking fuel while the remainder in the tank was pumped into a drum. The driver and fire officials estimated that only 20-30 gallons of fuel had leaked out, based on the flow of fuel and the time elapsed from the point of impact until the leak was stopped.

If the carrier’s emergency spill plan had been followed, the safety manager would have been notified immediately after the spill. But the driver only called the carrier’s maintenance facility to report the trouble. He also notified Operations to say he would probably be late on his delivery.

The fleet safety manager called Spill Center as soon as he learned about the accident it in the morning, and a Spill Center compliance associate sent out notifications and reports to the proper authorities. But the DEP’s two-hour window had long closed. The Mass DEP late-notification infraction carries a penalty of $11,500.

This carrier has very few spill incidents, which is part of the reason people forget about what to do in situations like this. The safety manager confided that in 20 some years, they may have had a half-dozen of these spills – always from road debris that comes up and punctures a fuel tank. When the citation arrived in the mail, the client called Spill Center for help at the DEP hearing.

The DEP offers a special enforcement settlement known as a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP), which can reduce the amount of a penalty. SEPs are agreements to perform activities which provide an increased level of environmental protection. In this case, the fleet offered to deploy a new on-board spill reporting system developed by Spill Center as an SEP. It was accepted by the DEP, and the fine was substantially lowered.

The onboard system enables a driver to quickly fill out a pre-formatted electronic spill message and transmit it directly from the truck to provide authorities with rapid notification and details of a spill. Spill Center’s onboard spill reporting system was an adaptation of homeland security technology to environmental protection.

The system is based on a Public Sector Reporting Center (PSRC) concept and technology developed by Spill Center in response to the U.S. government’s post-Sept. 11 efforts to prevent commercial vehicles carrying hazardous materials from being used in terrorist attacks. We successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of PSRC during the U.S. DOT’s extensive Hazardous Materials Safety and Security Field Operational Test.

In adapting the system for the fleet, a “spill macro” was created and loaded into the QUALCOMM OmniTRACS® satellite-based wireless communications terminals in all the company trucks. An assigned key on the driver’s terminal brings up the blank spill form, which the driver fills in with pertinent information about the spill.

We at Spill Center worked closely with the carrier and wireless communications specialist QUALCOMM®, to develop the system. It is designed to improve private and public sector response to hazmat incidents and increase efficiencies in the resolution of spills by quickly providing critical information needed to frame an appropriate incident response.

Once the driver sends the message, it instantaneously travels from the truck to QUALCOMM’s Network Operations Center in San Diego, California, where it is processed through the Multiple Access Software System (QMASS®). That enables automatic data sharing with authorized third parties, such as Spill Center. The message is forwarded both to the carrier’s headquarters and to Spill Center’s 24/7 call center, which immediately notifies authorities and completes the required reports.

The Massachusetts DEM called the spill reporting system an innovative way to sound the alarm after a spill, remarking that faster response is definitely better for the environment. The fleet safety manager said he believes that the on-board system enhances the carrier’s spill preparedness because the driver looks at his QUALCOMM keyboard everyday, and that spill macro label serves as a reminder of what needs to be done after a spill. The driver is the key individual in this whole thing. The system provides an extra margin of insurance that the message is going to get through much quicker than a phone call.

In addition to deploying the on-board spill reporting system, the fleet has taken other steps to avoid the communications breakdown that occurred after this incident. On-going training is a part of the solution; payday stuffers that emphasize the importance of immediate notification after spills are now used every month; plus a new policy has the driver calling Spill Center directly after the spill message is transmitted.

We at Spill Center commend this long-time client for deploying an integrated solution in its effort to achieve best management practices for over-the-road safety and emergency response management procedures. We look forward to discussing the system with other fleets who are interested in adding another layer of preparedness to their spill emergency program.

The Spill Center program is designed to help clients deal with environmental releases swiftly and thoroughly to avoid trouble with regulatory authorities. For more information, visit the website at or contact Tom by phone at 978-568-1922 x222 or email:

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Dealing with Hazardous Spills - OSHA Safety Training

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