How much will an oil spill cost your business?

What we’re about to do now is by nature of a scientific experiment;  a word association test.

There are no catches. I’m going to give you a simple phrase, and I’d like you to see what image it instantly calls to mind. Ready? Here we go: ‘oil spill’.

What do you see in your mind’s eye? I have no way of knowing, and I’m neither a betting man nor Derren Brown. However, I’d be very surprised if the list of mental images brought to mind didn’t involve BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the Amoco Cadiz, the Exxon Valdez, or, perhaps if you’re a little older, the Torrey Canyon, or maybe an oiled seabird or two.

English WaterwaysSee the common factor? (and there’s a clue I didn’t see until I wrote it down). They’re all at sea, and they’re all verging on the scarily large. But it’s a sad fact that oil spills don’t all happen at sea. In fact they’re more likely to happen inland, and there are far more of them than you might imagine, even in the UK.

The Environment Agency acknowledges that there are far fewer than there were a decade ago, but they’re nevertheless the second most frequent type of pollutant of inland waters reported in England and Wales. The introduction of England’s Oil Storage Regulations cut the number, but there are still getting on for 3,000 pollution incidents every year – in the order of eight a day. Although some of these affect land, the vast majority affect the country’s lakes and rivers – and they cost a typical business up to £30,000 in fines, clean-up charges and production losses to put right.

Of course, oil is everywhere, and it’s in large quantities. We use it in engines, hydraulic systems and fryers. It needs an extensive distribution and storage system, so there’s great potential for spills. The principal causes of oil pollution are loss from storage facilities, spills during delivery or dispensing and deliberate, illegal, disposal of waste oil to drains.

The Environment Agency has specific responsibility for a number of regulations related to storing and disposing of oil in a range of industrial settings, and the storage of agricultural fuel oils, and is responsible for enforcing the OSR England. Failure to comply is a criminal offence, and could land you with a fine of up to £5,000. Of course the Agency would prefer to work with you, and close the stable door before the horse bolts. It will provide advice and guidance, and help you to comply voluntarily, but has the power to make you toe the line.

So, we started with a word association test. Now let me paint another picture in your mind. In July this year a food processing company in Evesham had to pay £31,500 in fines and costs (quite apart from lost production and raw materials) when 5,000 litres of rapeseed oil spilled from a tank at its factory. The bund around the tank hadn’t contained the leak, and 800 litres of oil ran into the River Avon through surface water drains. In spite of the Environment Agency putting out a pollution control absorbent boom, two miles of the river were affected. Why was there a leak in the first place? A jubilee clip had come undone. Why did it turn into such a nightmare? The company didn’t understand its site drainage, and had no emergency action plan in place, so wasn’t able to deploy drain covers…

To help businesses avoid and deal with pollution incidents we have collected a range of advice within our advice centre.