Spill enforcement

A spill of oil or a hazardous substance into Washington waters harms the environment, violates state law, and may result in a significant penalty. While most individuals and companies comply with Washington's environmental laws and rules, sometimes a misunderstanding or judgment error results in a spill. We provide technical assistance and education to help people avoid spills and achieve compliance. When such assistance does not work, we may use our enforcement authority to issue a directive or assess a penalty. If we determine the spill was caused by negligence, we may issue a penalty for each day oil poses a risk to the environment or the public. If a violation seems intentional, we may pursue criminal prosecution.

If you spill

Report ALL spills immediately. If you spill or see a spill, report it. The faster we can respond, the better the outcome.

Spilling or violating spill regulations

If you spill oil or a hazardous substance into Washington waters, you are strictly liable without regard to fault or cause. It is a violation if you fail to immediately notify the Washington Emergency Management Division (1-800-258-5990) when you spill to water. Large ships and oil-handling facilities may be required to have state-approved oil spill contingency plans, training requirements, and operation manuals. To enforce these laws and requirements, we employ a range of tools from warning letters to administrative penalties, and even, in rare cases, criminal prosecution. Whichever tool is used, we work to ensure our enforcement is fair, impartial, and effective. We work to match the seriousness of the violation with the right enforcement tool to achieve positive results for people and the environment.

Types of enforcement actions

Our most-used enforcement tool is a warning accompanied with educational information about how to correct the problem. Depending on the seriousness of the violation, the impact to the environment, compliance history of the responsible party, and other factors, we may issue a range of enforcement actions.

Type of enforcement Description
Warning Issued for first-time or minor violations, vessel inspections, small spills to water.
Notice of violation Issued for a violation, or a threat of a violation, that may be corrected. Requires the recipient to submit a written report within 30 days on steps taken or to be taken to comply.
Notice of correction Issued in lieu of a penalty, and provides the recipient an opportunity to correct the violation within a reasonable time. The recipient is also provided an Ecology contact from whom to request an extension of time to comply. A notice of correction must be used if the violator:
  • Was not previously subject to enforcement or notice for the same or similar violations.
  • Did not fail to comply with a prior notice.
  • Does not pose a risk of death or bodily harm to a person, more than minor environmental harm, or property damage worth more than $1,000
Administrative order Issued for a violation, or when there is substantial potential of a violation, and either the responsible party failed to respond adequately to a Notice of Violation, or immediate action is deemed necessary.
Penalty Issued for spills or violations that are serious, cause or risk environmental harm, are repeat offenses, complicated spill response, or were preventable.

Penalty money collected is used to hire spill-response tugs, or to fund environmental restoration for the state, depending on the type of violation. We often enter into agreements for Supplemental Environmental Projects that provide an environmental benefit to settle appeals of penalties. These projects typically enhance environmental resources in or near the area where the spill occurred.

More information