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Hazardous material spills provide unique challenges to traffic incident clearance. Not only do response personnel have to deal with the challenges posed in a typical traffic incident, they also have to work with chemical hazards, the environmental impacts to the surrounding community, and the additional safety requirements needed to work with hazardous materials. This type of event increases the confusion that exists at a normal traffic incident, and it may greatly reduce the normal capacity of roadways beyond the confines of the accident locality. All of these factors combine to increase the impact that even a minor incident has on traffic operations.

Traffic incident management (TIM) and spill management are two of the tools in the “responder’s toolbox” that focus on reducing congestion. TIM focuses on developing procedures, implementing policies, and deploying technologies to identify incidents more quickly, improve response times, and manage the incident scene more effectively and efficiently. Spill management attempts to reduce the amount of time needed to clean-up and dispose of a hazardous spill and deploys strategies for moving traffic more effectively through an impacted area without jeopardizing the safety of the victims, responders or the traveling public.

While many states have established TIM programs, only a select few have begun to establish spill management programs. Spill management programs tend to be diverse and focus on three separate areas:

  • Response management and deployment strategies,
  • Planning and emergency preparedness, and
  • Remediation efforts.

Agencies in the developmental stages of a spill management program will benefit from a combination of program highlights outlined in this series. Those entities with established programs will be able to improve or revise their spill management programs.

Any incident has the potential to involve hazardous materials resulting from vehicle and/or cargo contents spills. To ensure safety from exposure at an incident site, all levels of responders should be knowledgeable of the potential hazards and be properly trained, at a minimum, to:

  • Immediately size-up the incident scene for the presence of hazardous materials; and
  • Know where, what, and how to look for hazardous material identification, and how to identify the risks associated with the materials.

With this type of training, and by being able to accurately report the nature and type of hazardous materials involved, valuable time can be saved in identifying and requesting the proper support and equipment necessary for clean-up.

  • Because of the number of safety and environmental regulations, including reporting requirements covering the exposure, handling, and disposal of materials, it is important that those involved in incident response understand the background, sources, and intent of these governing processes.   
  • Valuable time and exposure can be saved during the clean-up phase of a minor incident involving only small quantities (under the reporting limits) of normal vehicular fluids if the initial response team members, including transportation personnel and tow truck drivers, have the necessary training and proper equipment available on-scene to clean-up and properly dispose of the spilt material.
  • For other larger spills, or for incidents involving hazardous cargo, well defined policies and practices subscribed to by all the responder agencies will facilitate safe and timely action for the necessary clean-up.

Purpose of This Document

The mitigation and clean-up of hazardous spills is a major source of delay in clearing traffic incidents. In many instances, expensive, time consuming removal actions are initiated if the quantities exceed statutory limits. Motor fuels in the tank used for vehicle operation and other vehicle fluids are considered hazardous materials when spilt; however, the quantity is small when compared to the amount transported in cargo tank vehicles.

While the established safety standards designed to protect the responders, the traveling public and the environment from the adverse affects of exposure to these materials must be followed, some states recognize that incidental spills do not present the same threat as much larger spills from cargo tank vehicles. These states have adjusted laws and policies to permit quick and proper containment of minor spills. Some states are implementing best management practices in spill removal to improve incident clearance, reduce environmental impacts, and improve responder safety. The purpose of this document is to report practices regarding the clean-up of incidental spills and to explain the use of the United States Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). This document also describes techniques, and strategies that can be used to handle hazardous material spills at traffic incidents.

Target Audience

This document provides ideas and considerations for transportation officials, department of transportation (DOT) operations personnel, and first responders, such as firefighters and police. It is also a valuable tool for secondary responders from such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and United States Coast Guard who can utilize this document as a training reference when they provide outreach training to first responders.The target audience for this document includes:

  • Operations Personnel – DOT operations personnel responsible for implementing traffic incident management strategies.
  • First Responders – Individuals responsible for the initial confinement and containment of a spill (state and local personnel).

Structure of this Guidebook

This guidebook is one in an Information Series on Traffic Incident Management Safe, Quick Clearance. This guidebook focuses on Hazardous Materials Spills in Incident Clearance. Other guidebooks available in this information series deal with the following topics:

  • Traffic Incident Management in Construction and Maintenance Work Zones,
  • Traffic Control Concepts for Incident Clearance,
  • Information Sharing for Traffic Incident Management, and
  • Traffic Incident Management Resource Management.

This document deals with the protocol and necessary knowledge required when dealing with hazardous materials spills on the roadway. It provides basic knowledge necessary for transportation first responders to enable them to make proper decisions in the identification of the material and on how such spills can be safely handled. Chapter 2 addresses the basic information necessary to understand the various types of hazardous materials; how these materials are classified to aid in their proper identification; and clean-up methodology. Chapter 3 deals with the identification of hazardous materials at a scene site. Chapter 4 provides an overview of the associated regulations governing the handling and disposal of all types of hazardous materials; examines the categories or levels and training necessary to be able to respond; and the necessary safeguards in place to protect responders. A sampling of available products to aid in safely cleaning up the more common, smaller hazardous material spills can be found in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 provides information on the guidance being given by some states to address hazardous materials incident clearance response. Chapter 7 provides a brief overview of the U.S. DOT Emergency Response Guidebook and how to use it. Chapter 8 contains references and other suggested readings that were used to develop this guidebook. Chapter 9 contains a glossary of terms.

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