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Everything you need to know about what constitutes a spill in under seven minutes. If you prefer to read the transcript is below.

What constitutes a spill? (Transcription)

Hello, my name is David Cole, and I’m the Technical Director of Sandfield Penstock Solutions and today I’m going to talk to you about what constitutes a spill.

What constitutes a spill?

Well, let’s look at a spill, first of all, because a spill could be simply that somebody is just doing a gearbox change and they spill a bit of oil on the floor, that can be easily managed with a little bit of a clear up using a spill kit.

That’s not really what I’m interested in or what you’re probably interested in. I want to understand larger spills. Spills that actually could cause an environmental impact if something went wrong, something that’s going to impact your business because it could leave your site and you wouldn’t be able to control it. That’s the type of spill that we’re really interested in today.

At what point does a spill become a pollution event? 

When we look at a spill, the question is can it get off your site? If it can get off your site, that might mean it flowing down the drain and leaving the site, it might flow down the road and leave your site. It could be that the pollutant is in the ground and it’s now moving away from your site very, very slowly. Those are really the three main issues that you come across that could cause a pollution event.

Let’s look at one of the most common causes of spills which is deliveries, movement of stock which is when a large, say, a bulk IBC of a thousand litres has been moved around, or a tanker is delivering your bulk storage of chemicals or fuel oil to your business. What can happen is that a hose breaks, somebody’s moving some material around a PSI canister, or you suddenly got that as a release of a material. What we’re looking at there is that material can flow quite quickly, and if you don’t really know where it flows to, the potential is that if it’s a delivery from a tanker, it’s in a specific location, but if all of a sudden, you lose a hose and now you’ve got 7000 litres of under-pressure material that comes spewing out, you’ve got to understand that that is a spill that could potentially leave the site very, very quickly, and cause a pollution event.

Which materials do we need to be particularly concerned about?

Looking at the materials of the pollution impact is always difficult because lots of us think it’s just about Sulphuric Acid and common chemicals that are really nasty but almost anything can be a pollutant in the right instance. Even if you just spill some milk, you can take out oxygen from the water which can kill fish. It could just be very, very turbid, dirty water, very silty water, which if you drop it into a river or a stream can impact the fish and the wildlife. So, almost anything that shouldn’t be there can be constituted as a spill.

Are all pollution events the result of what we recognise as spills?

The problem we got is that there are other types of spillages that occur. We often walk in and see an actual event where we see a spillage and we see it physically and we know what we’ve got to do. We react with our spill kits, and we react with closing our ToggleBlok valve or whatever pollution containment device we’ve got in place. So, we actually have an immediate reaction if it’s something that happens in front of us.

There’s often events where you’ve got tanks and bunds, they’ve got little leeches and leaks that nobody really notices. Quite a common one is that we find with an underground storage of chemicals or, bowed storage of chemicals above ground but there’s a small loss of material that nobody really notices for a long time, not until it actually leaves the site and itstarts to impact the environment around it. These types of spills can be one of the most difficult because once the actual leak is detected, it’s probably been happening for a long, long period of time and then remediation comes into place which can be quite expensive. So, controlling it at the beginning or, or seeing it at the beginning is essential. 

And one of the common areas that we’ve worked on in the past is where a site is actually noticed that they’ve got an oil pollution problem. This year we were involved with the site that every time it rained, they had a pollution incident. But every time it stopped raining, they didn’t. What we detected or what we found on that particular site was that the oil had been lost through an old historical oil tank that hadn’t been used for many, many years. But the oil had broken down, broken down into the ground. Once it got into the ground, every time it rained, the water table would rise slightly and would of course, because the hydrocarbons were settling on top of the water, and just lifting the oil gradually up, which then caused it to enter the storm drains again and flow through the site. So, every time it rained, we’d have a pollution incident. When it stopped raining, we wouldn’t have a pollution incident. 

This type of impact is quite difficult because then what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to remove that oil or remediate that oil pretty quickly because you’ll never ever going to get back into control without doing some major remediation work.

How should people be managing spills on their sites?

Managing spills has always been quite a simple process, and I think what most sites do is they look at reactive measures. They look at there’s a pollution incident, we’ve got some chemicals; there’s a pollution incident, we react because we’ve got a big set of spilt products, which we take over. We mop it all up and we stick it into another band that goes away as a hazardous waste.

We like to look at it a little bit differently. As a business, we try to look at it as eliminating the actual spill in the first place, and you can do that by looking at your risk and your process of how, how spills happen. Once you’ve done that, what you can do then is contain a spill and keeping it in the original material rather than using another material to collect it, really. If you can keep it in its liquid form you can clean it, its sort pure form, you can recycle it, you can reuse it, you can send it away for reprocessing. Whereas if we’ve actually cleaned it up with materials, which is common if you use a Spill Kit, you’ve actually now created a new pollutant material purely to move that spill, that waste, to somewhere else which is now a hazardous waste site for, it never really goes away. Whereas if we can contain it as its liquid form, we can actually reuse it.

What is your recommendation for anyone looking to address their spill containment challenges?

Well, for this type of issue, we would recommend that you use our six steps, so that you actually understand what your problems are and solve them. Step one, understand the regulations. Step two, understand how the regulations apply to your specific site. Step three, audit your site. Step four, design an appropriate solution. Step five is to implement your design. And step six is to monitor, maintain, and document what you do. 

If you have any questions or would like to know more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

David Cole MSEE

David Cole MSEE

Technical Director

David is a pioneer of the spill containment and water pollution prevention industry with 30 years experience. He was instrumental in the development of CIRIA736 with The Environment Agency and is passionate about preventing water pollution.

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