Oil and Hazardous Substances Response

DOI and Oil Spills

Each year, thousands of emergencies involving oil spills or the release (or threatened release) of hazardous substances are reported in the United States. Emergencies range from small scale spills to large events requiring prompt action and evacuation of nearby populations. The U. S. Government, in conjunction with State, Tribal and certain foreign Governments, has developed a comprehensive preparedness and response system in which the Department of the Interior (DOI) plays a major role.

The information on the web pages to follow provides a brief overview of DOI’s roles and responsibilities in planning for, and responding to, oil spills. The questions answered include:

  • Why does DOI get involved with oil spill preparedness and response?
  • What is DOI’s role in preparing to respond to an oil spill?
  • What does DOI do when there is an oil spill?


Pilot Town, LA spill from Hurricanes Katrina/Rita.  Photo by D.L. Mutter (DOI)

The U. S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are the designated Federal lead agencies for preparing for, and responding to, oil spills. DOI fulfills a substantial support role to these agencies for oil spill preparedness and response.   Authorities for U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) involvement in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery activities for oil discharges and hazardous substance releases are principally provided for in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) (40 CFR Part 300) and responsibilities are delegated to the Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance through the DOI Departmental Manual (112 DM 4).  Additionally, numerous Federal laws and regulations define DOI responsibilities for protecting the Nation’s natural and cultural resources, managing Federal lands and waters, providing technical expertise and assistance, and serving as a Trustee for Native Americans.  Many of these authorities provide the basis for DOI participation in spill preparedness, response, and recovery.

Oil spills have the potential to adversely impact the environment, natural resources, public lands, and people’s livelihoods. DOI is the designated Federal trustee and land manager for much of the nation’s natural resources (including those offshore); cultural and historic properties; and park, refuge, and public lands. DOI also has a trust responsibility with regard to Alaska Natives and American Indians.  
Specific DOI responsibilities to protect resources that could be impacted by an oil spill include:

  • National Park System Units, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management public lands, and Bureau of Reclamation-managed lands and waters; as well as special management areas (e.g., wilderness areas and wild and scenic/recreational rivers), and other lands and facilities under the jurisdiction, custody, or control of DOI.
  • Migratory birds (e.g. seabirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, diving birds, and raptors). 
  • Selected marine mammals (i.e., polar bears, walruses, sea otters, and manatees). 
  • Sea turtles (when onshore).
  • Anadromous fishes (shared with the National Marine Fisheries Service).
  • DOI-managed threatened and endangered species and critical habitat .
  • Historic properties (e.g., archeological resources, historic resources, national historic landmarks, sites on the National Register of Historic Places).
  • Offshore oil and gas and energy and material resource leasing, exploration, development, and production activities.

American Indian and Alaska Native Trust Responsibilities:

  • Since the Federal action agency must consult with Tribes, DOI could, when requested by a Tribe, assist with Tribal consultation. DOI also provides coordination and technical assistance to Tribes to develop policies and procedure to address emergency/recovery management issues.
  • Indian and Alaskan Native allotments and Native town sites. 
  • Subsistence resources on Federal public lands and waters. 
  • Indian Reservations and other lands and waters protected by treaty.

The Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance (OEPC), through the Regional Environmental Officers (REOs), receives initial notification of oil discharges and hazardous substance releases from the USCG or EPA. OEPC provides appropriate bureaus/offices with notification of discharges and releases. OEPC provides reports to the Interior Operations Center for their situational awareness. OEPC ensures requests for DOI expertise or assistance reach the appropriate bureau(s)/office(s). OEPC also represents DOI on the standing, and incident-specific activations, NRT, RRTs, and International Joint Response Teams (JRTs). OEPC provides input to press releases and media briefings. The role of OEPC is to advise and assist the FOSC on:

  • preventing or mitigating the environmental impacts of a threatened or actual discharge/release of oil or hazardous substances
  • detecting and assessing the extent of contamination (including sampling and analysis and environmental monitoring)
  • stabilizing the discharge/release and preventing the spread of contamination
  • assisting in protection of environmentally sensitive areas, natural and cultural resources and historic properties, and DOI lands, resources, and visitors
  • consulting on environmental compliance to protect threatened and endangered species, critical habitat, and natural and cultural resources and historic properties
  • providing technical assistance to ensure DOI Indian trust responsibilities are upheld
  • analyzing options for environmental cleanup and waste disposition
  • providing technical assistance to support environmental cleanup
  • providing input to decisions on the use of dispersants and in situ burning

DOI bureaus and offices that have expertise and assets that can help with preparedness planning and response include: 

  • Office of the Secretary/Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service
  • Office of Aviation Services
  • Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
  • U.S. Geological Survey

What is the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) role in preparing to respond to an oil spill?

Preparing to respond to a spill requires collaboration and coordination among many parties on international, national, regional, state, tribal, and local levels; including the private sector. Numerous spill contingency plans have been developed to address the issues of response, assets available to respond, and the organizational structure to carry out a response

  • Provide scientific/technical assistance to the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC): DOI scientists and technical experts provide expertise and advice to support the FOSC and help to carry out operational decisions that will protect sensitive natural, recreational, and cultural areas and resources; mitigate collateral harm; and facilitate environmental recovery. This may include overseeing wildlife rescue and rehabilitation operations, and permitting requirements.
  • Participate in incident-specific activations of the Regional Response Team (RRT): The DOI RRT member, who is the Regional Environmental Officer (REO) in the Office of the Secretary, supports the FOSC, through the RRT Co- Chair, by providing advice and access to DOI bureau/office resources and by representing the policies of the DOI. Based on input from appropriate DOI bureaus and offices, the REO provides formal concurrence for DOI, pursuant to the National Contingency Plan, on the use of different spill countermeasures. The REO is ultimately responsible for ensuring coordinated DOI participation in response.
  • Act as a First Federal Official on spills on DOI-managed lands: If a discharge or release affects land under DOI jurisdiction, the land manager may serve as the First Federal Official until the FOSC arrives, as a member of the Unified Command and/or in appropriate sections of the Incident Command System (ICS) organization.

DOI also plays an important role in the aftermath of an oil spill with its Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program.  For more information go to: http://www.doi.gov/restoration/index.cfm 

Remnant crude oil 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill. Photo by D.L. Mutter (DOI)
Remnant crude oil 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill. Photo by D.L. Mutter (DOI)

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