Traffic was snarled for hours on a busy Massachusetts highway after a tractor-trailer was forced into a guard rail, rupturing a fuel tank and spilling some 30 gallons of fuel on the roadway. Local fire and police departments were first on the scene, followed later by a clean-up team from the state environmental protection agency. It wasn't the truck driver's fault, but the trucking company still had to pay emergency response and clean-up costs.

At a fuel station near Pittsburgh, a trucker ran over a support platform, tearing open one of the saddle tanks. An estimated 20 to 30 gallons of fuel spilled onto the parking lot and ran into a storm drain that dumps into the Allegheny River. Firefighters, employees of a local towing service, and a non-emergency hazmat team all played a hand in the containment and cleanup. The driver wasn't cited for any traffic violation, but his company was liable for the costs.

Any day, anywhere in the country, you're likely to see news headlines loudly announcing, "Diesel Spill Threatens Water Source" or "Diesel Spill Closes Highway." In small quantities, diesel isn't considered especially hazardous unless it runs into a waterway or seeps into ground water. But if it's not dealt with properly, even a few gallons on the pavement can lead to very costly – and very public – problems. And the frequency of spills is much higher than you may think.

HMHTTC Response Inc., an emergency response company based in Mt. Arlington, N.J., manages more than 2,500 hazardous materials and non-hazmat incidents a year. President and CEO Scott Turner says about 60 percent of those incidents are related to diesel spills. Leaks or spills from fuel crossover lines are on a downward trend because manufacturers aren't using them anymore, he says, but saddle tanks are still susceptible to damage from wrecks or, more commonly, the bumps and grinds of everyday maneuvering.

"We see a lot of incidents that were preventable," he notes. "Maybe a driver is backing up in a loading area and he backs over a parking bollard, punching a hole in the tank. When things like that happen, we share the information with clients so they can look at it after the fact and maybe prevent something similar from happening again."

Tom Moses, president of the Spill Center, an Acton, Mass.-based environmental claims management company, says about half of the spills it processes involve ruptured saddle tanks or damaged crossover lines. The average amount of fuel released is just over 100 gallons. The average cost per incident is nearly $15,000. Fleets can expect about 1 percent of their power units to have a spill per year, he says. "If you're not seeing a number that looks like 1 percent a year, you're probably not catching all of your incidents."

Even if another vehicle is responsible for the accident, the trucker is liable for spill damages and clean-up costs. "If you have care, custody and control of a material at the time of loss, as a matter of law, you're a spill generator," Moses explains. For instance, if a truck is T-boned by a drunk driver, the trucking company's insurance company may be able to recover costs from the drunk driver, but "all state and federal laws make the spill generator first in line, first on the hook to take care of the spill," Moses says. "So while (the trucker) is standing on the side of the road arguing that he didn't cause the accident, the fuel or hazmat is entering water, a storm sewer or drain, contaminating soil or a third-party owner's well. He's actively exacerbating the damages, allowing them to get bigger and bigger and bigger. At the end of the day, all eyes are going to be on him."

Small fuel spills that contaminate waterways may trigger federal reporting requirements, but the big headache is a patchwork of state and local regulations. In some states even a 1-gallon spill must be reported. The deadline for reporting can be as short as one hour.

"For transport companies, understanding and adhering to those state-specific regulations is a real challenge," says Nanci Tellam, director of environmental services for Ryder System. "You've got a state like Massachusetts, which requires a one-hour notification and they're very strict about enforcement. In other states the standard is vague, such as 'if the environment is impacted.' "

The one thing all jurisdictions seem to have in common is stiff fines for non-compliance. HMHTTC's Turner is a former owner-operator and still operates trucks through S.L. Turner and Son Waste Transport. "I understand how serious these states are about these issues," he says. "Let's say you have a 5-gallon spill in Louisiana. You clean it up, put the spilled fuel in a drum, and dispose of it through a proper disposal facility. You've got all your paperwork. You've dotted your i's and crossed your t's. But if you didn't make the required notification within one hour, you could still be facing a $15,000 fine."


Everyone who operates commercial vehicles – including owner-operators – should have a spill contingency plan detailing responsibilities and steps to be taken. It should include a list of phone numbers for regulatory agencies and qualified cleanup contractors in all areas your trucks operate. It should also include names and numbers of people within the company to be notified if there's a spill, and any other information needed to respond quickly and appropriately.

Don't assume that your insurance company will take care of it. Primary liability insurance usually includes some coverage for costs related to vehicle fuel spills (hazmat cargo of course requires separate coverage), but you need to verify coverage and find out what limits may apply. Most insurance companies want to be notified immediately when even a small spill occurs. Some provide spill management services. Some may want you to make clean-up arrangements, but with prior authorization from them.

A 24-hour vehicle spill response program is included in primary liability offered through Ryder Insurance, but Tellam says many Ryder lease customers who have their own insurance also call them. "They know that we have a very robust national spill response program," she explains. "We have a national provider with a database of about 4,000 incident providers who are able to respond to a diesel spill 24/7. It helps our customers because they know they're not at the mercy of local providers. They know we're monitoring the bills, that we're making sure charges are customary and reasonable."

Some fleet managers prefer to make arrangements through a local environmental services provider or someone they've dealt with in the past. Experts say that's a good plan if you and/or the provider you choose have the experience and contacts to deal with emergencies effectively and cost-efficiently anywhere your trucks operate. If not, a national response management service may be the way to go.

"A lot of people think we're expensive because we handle some really big accidents, but we're not," says Taylor. Under a program with America's Independent Truckers' Association, small fleets and owner-operators pay HMHTTC a flat $165 to manage any incident, anywhere in the country. The fee includes access to their 24/7 Dispatch Center, assessment of the situation, dispatch of local clean-up contractors, and review of contractor invoices.

The Spill Center offers members of the American Trucking Associations free access to its online state-by-state spill reporting database and a 15 percent discount on Spill Center Services.

Although programs and services vary somewhat, they all offer a 24/7 emergency number manned by people trained to quickly assess the situation and determine what's necessary – and what isn't. Explains Taylor: "Maybe you've got a 50-gallon diesel fuel spill. It's on the road but hasn't gotten into the storm drain. If you rely on the police department or call a local contractor, they might show up with five trucks and 10 people. You're going to pay for all that. We control the incident from the beginning. We tell the local contractor what's needed. If they feel they need more people or equipment they have to get authorization from us. Controlling those costs up front is very, very important."

A good emergency response service will take care of all necessary reporting and documentation. It will audit bills to make sure charges were fair and services were necessary. If needed, it will help put together a contingency plan and carry out certain elements of the plan, such as notification of designated company representatives.

HMHTTC recently added a safety element to its services. Called the Safe Driver Initiative, the program uses the eyes of emergency response managers to watch for problem drivers on the road. As Taylor explains, the company's response managers are highly trained safety professionals who collectively log millions of miles a year on the nation's highways. If they see a trucker driving erratically, they report it to HMHTTC's internal safety department. The safety department will in turn contact the trucking company with details of the incident including vehicle number, location, date and time. The service is offered to all HMHTTC customers at no extra cost. "It's strictly confidential," Taylor emphasizes. "What they do with the information is entirely up to them."


Drivers, of course, are the ultimate front-line responders in any incident. Every contingency plan must include driver awareness and training.

Taylor's No. 1 rule: "If it's hazardous material, get away. Don't go in and try to figure out what it is or how to save it, because it could cost you your life. Get away and secure the area to keep others from going near the spill."

In the case of diesel spills, most experts advise drivers to stop the spill if possible using putty or plugs. If the amount is small, they may be able to catch the liquid in a bucket, pan or any other container they can locate in a hurry.

Probably the most important action a driver can take is to make sure the diesel doesn't enter a storm drain or waterway. "Once it enters the storm drain, the price of poker just went up," says Taylor.

Portable spill kits with booms and absorbent pads designed to contain and clean up small spills are readily available from most companies that sell shop or emergency supplies. The cost is usually $80 to $100, depending on materials included and the size of the spill it's designed to handle.

Taylor's recommended emergency response tool: a shovel. "You can almost always find a bit of dirt at the side of the road that can be used to build a small dam in front of a storm drain," he says. If not, rags, towels or wadded-up clothing can usually provide at least temporary protection.

Drivers should also have an emergency number they can call to get immediate 24/7 advice and assistance. "In our business it's pretty standard practice," notes Tellam. "You're going to have fuel spills. If you've got spill kits in the cab, if you've got a training program for the drivers and if you've got a resource for them to network into, you should be ready to deal with the situation."


The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks underscored the need for sophisticated emergency response systems that can quickly get information to government agencies and first responders. The Spill Center, along with many other industry suppliers and trucking companies, has worked with federal agencies to develop such systems.

It's also working with individual fleets, most recently to develop macros for existing truck communications systems that enable drivers to report everything from diesel fuel spills to poison inhalation simply by pushing a button and answering a couple of questions. The information, including GPS-generated vehicle location, is sent electronically to a response center where an emergency management program can be activated in about 75 seconds.

At least for one company, the payoff has been significant. Moses says the carrier had a good contingency plan in place and its drivers knew what to do, but the problem arose when a driver called the shop to report a small diesel spill and a night watchman answered the phone. The watchman dutifully took the message then placed it on the safety manager's chair. The state where the spill occurred had a four-hour reporting requirement. When the safety director got to his office the next morning the deadline had passed.

"Unfortunately, this jurisdiction, like many, is especially stringent," Moses says. "They threw the book at these guys. They dredged up every minor indiscretion, added it all up and concluded the company had to pay a six-figure fine."

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The company acknowledged responsibility for the night watchman's mistake, but also explained steps it had taken to make sure it didn't happen again – including the automated reporting system. The state accepted the new plan as final settlement of all claims against the company, Moses says. It also asked the carrier to tell the rest of the industry how important it is to report spills, and show others how it can be done quickly and reliably using technology already in place.