What is the Oil Spill Law?

The Oil Spill Law, enacted in 19771, provides that anyone who discharges petroleum without a permit - even a very small amount - is "strictly liable" (liable without regard to fault) for all cleanup and removal costs. As a result, the owner of the oil tank from which the oil spilled or leaked - such as the homeowner whose heating oil tank leaks - may be required to pay for the cleanup regardless of whether the homeowner's actions "caused" the spill or leak.

The law provides that others involved with the spill or who caused the spill also may be liable for the cleanup and damages. Thus, the owner/operator of the oil delivery truck or equipment often may share responsibility for the costs of cleaning up a spill or leak, as when a deliverer overfills a tank. However, the Oil Spill Law also provides that each person, including the homeowner or operator of the tank or truck, can be held liable for the entire cleanup cost. This is called "joint and several liability."

The New York Environmental Protection and Spill Compensation Fund (the "Fund") provides state agencies, particularly the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), with money to clean up oil spills if the responsible parties cannot afford to pay, cannot be identified, or refuse responsibility.2 To protect public health and the environment, DEC retains a contractor to clean up the spill. Because it is important to clean up the spill quickly, the cleanup is often conducted before the responsible parties can be identified or are willing to accept responsibility. Afterwards, the Fund must seek to recover the money expended on the cleanup. As the Navigation Law requires, the Fund recovers the money from responsible parties so it will be able to pay for additional cleanups in the future. Since its inception, the Fund has recovered over $60 million from responsible parties, and spent $214 million to remediate spills when responsible parties have failed to do so.3