Local Impacts of Hurricane Sandy: Petroleum Spills and Discharges

Environmental Law


Hurricane Sandy has brought absolute devastation and destruction to New York. Fallen trees, wind damage, flooding, and loss of power are just a few of the immediate and obvious effects of this storm. However, there are other consequences that are less immediately evident. In many pictures of the aftermath, the recognizable sheen of oil is visible in the flooded waters surrounding local homes and businesses. And as the flood waters recede, the petroleum product that had been floating along will now contaminate the soil and adjacent lands. Underground and above ground storage tanks will have likely been damaged during the storm, resulting in the release of petroleum products and hazardous materials. These discharges can result in contamination to the soil and groundwater, threatening the health of the public and environment.

The New York State Department of Environment Conservation (“NYSDEC”) maintains the Spill Response Program which responds to releases of petroleum and other hazardous material releases. The public must notify NYSDEC of petroleum product and hazardous material releases, and can call the NYS Spill Hotline at 1-800-457-7362, if a spill is discovered. Whether a spill is small (a release of a few gallons) or large, NYSDEC must be notified of the spill and approve of the eventual response and remedial activities. The spills and discharges as a result of Hurricane Sandy will vary in size. It is possible that these spills will release to the soil and potentially contaminate groundwater and require immediate response and remediation. NYSDEC has fielded thousands of calls so far.

The important question here is whether a home or business owner is responsible for contacting NYSDEC and cleaning up petroleum or other hazardous material contamination at their property, although the discharge did not originate at their property. A release of fuel oil from a building several blocks away may have traveled during the storm to your property and impacted its soil. Are you still responsible?

NYSDEC will characterize the current owner and/or operator of the property on which the contamination is found as the responsible party for the response and remediation. Thereafter, it will be that party’s burden to seek other responsible parties to recover cleanup costs. Especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, attempting to recover costs from the responsible parties becomes a complicated issue because there might be multiple sources of contamination and many being unknown.

In the immediate, it is imperative to contact NYSDEC if a spill or discharge is known. Once NYSDEC is notified of the spill, it will issue a Spill Number and coordinate the response and remediation of the contamination. Legal counsel with expertise in these environmental issues is recommended to assist in communication and negotiation with NYSDEC, as well as to initiate future actions against other responsible parties to recover costs of cleanup.

For more information on the NYSDEC Spill Response Program and petroleum product contamination and remediation, please contact Miriam Villani or Jason Kaplan.

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