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When Every Second Counts: Oil Spills on Water

Incidents involving hazardous substances don't just occur on land. Again and again, we hear of incidents involving oil spills on water, with severe consequences. It's the sad reality of large-scale catastrophes that reach the ears of the public: tankers run aground, pipeline leaks, and oil rig accidents. However, seemingly small-scale oil leaks can also have catastrophic effects when they affect a local body of water. A single drop of oil can spread quickly, contaminating up to 1000 liters of water. But how can companies take precautions? What equipment is needed for an emergency? And what happens when something happens? We answer the most important questions here.

Good reasons for active emergency planning

A company must use a risk assessment to identify potential hazards if it handles water hazardous substances. In addition to the corresponding safety measures, it must also prepare an emergency plan to deal with leaks. The local circumstances may also mean that the company needs to prepare for incidents involving oil spills on water; for example, if there is a body of water on or directly next to the operating site, oil pipelines run near water, or there are drains present into which oil could penetrate by accident.

Oil spills must be reported

Oil spills on the water generally need to be reported and are a situation for the fire brigade to handle. However, the emergency plan should not be limited to calling 999 and waiting for the professionals to take over. The most treacherous thing about oil spills on the water is the speed with which the liquid spreads out on the water's surface.

Oil film on water spreads fast

Especially in flowing waters, the oil film and the subsequent damage will spread downstream with every second. The fire brigade will take time to arrive on site, meaning valuable time can be lost. To limit the spread of oil, fast emergency measures can be implemented. By doing this, companies will minimize environmental damage and reduce the costs they will have to pay for causing the incident.

Oil spills on the water can be expensive

If you allow hazardous substances to enter the water and cause damage, you are not only liable to pay damages but will also have to bear the costs for the clean-up. Insurers will also monitor whether sufficient emergency preparations were made for the corresponding hazards. Companies would, therefore, be well advised to look at suitable emergency measures as a priority.

Safe through emergency planning in the case of an oil spill

It can be helpful to cooperate with the local fire brigade when carrying out emergency planning. The relevant fire service may also visit a company if they recognize a potential danger. By working together, both parties can benefit from sharing ideas for preparing an emergency plan and agreeing on suitable emergency equipment. Sometimes, the fire service may provide the company with special equipment and install this on-site. The company can be confident that the right equipment is in the right place if an emergency arises, and the fire brigade will benefit from having the right equipment in place if required.

The A - Z of Emergency Response

Determining Suitable Measures and Equipment

Actual emergency measures always depend on the risk assessment, as well as the resources to be procured. An example emergency plan gives you a good idea of ​​what is essential and needed.

Identify the oil leak and alert the fire brigade.

The response begins with the discovery of the leak. If an oil spill is detected on the water or a leak is found that could cause oil to enter the water, the fire department should usually be alerted first. Other relevant parties should also be informed, such as the water authority or specialists from local companies. If third parties, particularly operators of sewage treatment plants or water supply companies, may be affected, they should also be informed of the dangerous situation.

In an ideal situation, emergency measures will be put in place immediately.

  • Secure the incident site

  • Assess the type, quantity, and hazard level of the leaked substance

  • Contain the leak

  • Clean up the leak

Stop oil spills on the water with the help of oil barriers

To prevent the leak from spreading, it should be stopped at its source as soon as possible. This can be achieved by deploying oil barriers on the water.

Active barriers, in combination with a passive system, work exceptionally well: while the passive system forms the actual oil barrier, the active barrier can take up most of the leaked oil and then be retrieved in one piece using the rope.

How can the consequences of oil spills on the water be contained?

If particular risk areas are known, the use of oil barriers in emergencies can be prepared as precisely as possible. For example, suitable barrier locations can be determined in advance so that you do not have to drive behind the oil film but can intercept it at appropriate points. Criteria such as favorable flow conditions, safe access routes, and sufficient attachment options for the equipment used play an essential role.

The water conditions largely determine the design of the oil barriers. Are they standing or flowing waters? What width, depth, and flow rate should be considered?

What should be considered when installing oil barriers?

If oil barriers with a diving apron are purchased, the required depth of immersion depends on the depth of the water, and the length of the barrier depends on the width of the water. However, at higher flow rates, it is essential to remember that the oil barrier should not be installed at a right angle to the shore to reduce the velocity of the approach, thus minimizing the forces on the barrier. For these reasons, the oil barrier should be longer in individual cases. Here are products that consist of unique elements that can be connected quickly. So you can adjust flexibly to the size of the accident or different water types.

When attaching oil barriers, it is also important not to set the breakpoints on the shore too high since the barrier can be infiltrated otherwise. Possibly. In addition, binding fleeces should be applied on the shore. Even strong currents can pull oil under the barrier. Here, it is worthwhile, if necessary, to provide several barriers that, even at a distance from one another, offer even greater security. Thus, the next lock may stop the oil from infiltrating a previous lock.

Which binders are suitable for absorbing the oil on water surfaces?

Binders for receiving the oil from the water should be kept at the level specified in the risk assessment. Sometimes, oil binders are used in granular form, but they have certain disadvantages. Once spread on the oil spill, the binder must also be removed from the water after absorption. This is often difficult, and a complete elimination is hardly possible. Depending on the flow conditions, the material is flushed more or less quickly into the bank area and gets caught up in the vegetation. Another disadvantage of the granules is the potential poisoning of the aquatic fauna. The granules, partially contaminated with oil, can be falsely identified as food by birds and fish, causing bird and fish extinction, depending on their size. All these adverse side effects can be avoided by using oil suction mats without losing functionality. Floating oil suction mats are made of non-woven material. They are made of 100% polypropylene and are inherently water repellent (hydrophobic) and oil attractant (oleophilic). They can be easily distributed during the oil spill and collected again without great effort since they are still buoyant in the saturated state. As with granules, an elaborate breaking off of the water surface is eliminated. Suction mats are available individually and on a roll so that long sections can be used for bank protection. This oil contaminant is absorbed and limited in the embankment. As previously mentioned, oil mist and active barriers are well-suited to removing residual oil films.

The need for further measures and aid depends on the circumstances. How much staff is needed? Does the staff know the assignment plan? How can the equipment be quickly transported to the job site? Are additional resources such as job boats, anchors, lines, tools, or lighting needed? All these questions should be asked in advance to respond quickly in an emergency. You notice: Active contingency planning pays off.


Good to know: As a rule, follow-up measures follow a successful intervention. In addition to the correct disposal of contaminated materials, the relevant authorities often require monitoring to be carried out to determine possible residual pollution.

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