What You Need to Know About Oil Spills - The Office of Spill Prevention and Response - A Coastal Activists Guide

  • Posted on 2 December 2021
  • By Seth Weisbord
Oil spills are catastrophic events that make all of us coastal activists in some ways. We must unify in our support in effective and meaningful responses that can make a difference. For those Sierra Club volunteers with a focus on coastal issues, it is best to focus on the agencies and organizations with a focus on the immediate response with a follow-up on those responsible for clean up and of course continuous interaction with those responsible for preventing such catastrophes in the first place. This is the first in a series on oil spills and we start with understanding which agency is our first line of defense.
Who is responsible for the immediate response to an oil spill? 
The Office of Spill Prevention and Response (“OSPR’) is the lead state agency for prevention, preparedness, response and natural resource restoration related to oil spills in California’s surface waters.
Why was OSPR formed?
Following the devastating 11 million gallon oil spill in 1989 from the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska and the 1990 American Trader spill off of Huntington Beach, discharging some 416,000 gallons of crude, comprehensive legislation, the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill and Prevention Act, was enacted into law in 1990, covering all aspects of marine oil spill prevention and response.
The Act recognizes California’s unique exposure to the risks of marine oil spill, whether it be by oil well blowouts, pipeline leaks and ruptures, breaches of containment systems, among other reasons. California’s not only the third largest oil producing state in the nation—it’s home to several of the most important bioregions in the nation and world, and the largest area of marine sanctuaries and preserves in the world.
In 1991, the Office of Spill Prevention and Response opened, headed by an Administrator with broad powers to direct prevention, removal, abatement, response, containment and cleanup of any spill in state waters.
California’s comprehensive oil spill prevention and response program requires all marine facilities and vessels to comply with an integrated system of statewide regulations and other means to meet the law’s standard of providing the “best achievable protection” of the state’s coastal and marine resources through the use “of best available technologies” and practices.
In addition to its duties with respect to spills, OSPR also has “public trustee” responsibilities to protect fish, wildlife and plants, making it one of the few agencies in the nation with this dual pollution and protection mandate.
What does OSPR do when alerted to an oil spill...
When there’s a significant spill, OSPR deploys a field response team of game wardens, environmental scientists and oil spill prevention specialists to evaluate the incident and direct the response.
In ongoing efforts, OSPR collaborates with a multitude of other organizations to develop contingency and response plans. In 1993, OSPR created the California Oil Spill Contingency Plan, updating contingency plans, describing spill response roles, and outlining OSPR’s relationship with other agencies. We will describe some of the other organizations in following articles.
How are Oil Spills Reported?
According to the California Coastal Commission, oil spills should be reported to the National Response Center (800) 424-8802, the California Office of Emergency Services (916)262-1621, or California Fish & Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention & Response (800) OILS-911rt one.
Shipping Ports are a strong focus area for OSPR.
OSPR and others meet regularly at the state’s busiest ports to collect feedback from environmental groups, government agencies and private industry with the goal of improving safety and practices in the ports.
Practice Drills are critical for preparation.
Since fast and efficient coordination is critical to minimizing the impact of an oil spill, there needs to be a predetermined strategy and process for the most common types of oil spills. Just as most of us had some type of fire drill while attending school, OSPR organizes oil spill drills along coastal California to help local governments and organizations to become familiar with each other and their roles in the event of an oil spill. During an emergency where time counts, one cannot be looking up who to call, one must know their role and the others involved with the process.       
This is why, in an effort to promote readiness for spills, OSPR conducts field drills. Participants include OSPR staff, and representatives from the oil industry, including vessels and facilities. OSPR also works to ensure that industry members with the potential to have a spill have the financial resources to cover the cost of a response.
OSPR as a “Public Trustee”
To help fulfill its protection mandate, OSPR partners with the UC Davis Wildlife Care Center to manage the statewide Oiled Wildlife Care Network.  From the first facility which opened in 1997, the Network now has twenty-five participating and twelve primary response facilities, sustaining a collaborative effort involving government, nonprofits, concerned citizens and commercial interests, all to provide rescue and rehabilitation to wildlife—sea birds, sea otters, still recovering from 19th Century overhunting, and other animals—with the “best achievable protection”, using the “best available technology”.

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