What happens if a spill is not reported or cleaned up?
New York State law imposes a very broad reporting requirement: Any person who knows of a spill or leak of petroleum must report the incident within two hours to DEC.21 Failure to report a spill can subject that person to legal penalties under the Environmental Conservation Law.22 As a practical matter, of course, this does not mean that any passer-by who does not report a spill would be penalized. It does, however, demonstrate the need for all spills to be reported.
If a person who is a discharger fails to clean up a spill, that person can be held liable for civil penalties of up to $10,000 or criminal penalties of up to $25,000 per day for every day that the spill is not cleaned up.23 Usually after a spill is reported to DEC, that agency will attempt to notify parties whom the law holds responsible for the cleanup and will give those parties an opportunity to do the cleanup themselves, subject to the approval of DEC. If the responsible parties do not clean up the spill, then DEC will retain a contractor to do the cleanup.
If the State performs the cleanup, the costs of the cleanup will initially be paid by the Oil Spill Fund, which also is strictly liable for oil spill clean ups. However, the Oil Spill Fund is required by law to recoup those costs from the parties responsible for the spill. Generally, the Oil Spill Fund refers the case to the Attorney General, whose office may sue the responsible parties to recover those costs, plus interest and any appropriate penalties. The Attorney General may request that a lien be filed on spill sites owned by responsible parties.24
If the responsible parties can document financial hardship, the Attorney General's Office will take into consideration the financial situation of the responsible parties and the need to maintain a reserve of money in the Oil Spill Fund to clean up other spills. If settlement cannot be reached, the State will sue for the amount of the debt and may obtain a judgment enforceable against the responsible party's income and assets.