Small Fuel Spills

Emergency Response and Cleanup For Small Fuel Spills

Fire departments get many calls to vehicle accidents, spills at gas stations, and other small petroleum spills. These incidents, which can create fire, traffic and pollution threats, can be handled simply.

This fact sheet applies to spills of about 10 gallons of gasoline, diesel fuel, waste oil, or other engine fluids. This guidance does not apply to spills of chemicals, leaks of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) oil, or PCB contaminated oil from electrical equipment, such as transformers.

What damage can small spills create?

1. All types of petroleum can create traffic hazards by making roads slippery.
2. All types of petroleum are mixtures of toxic chemicals that, if not recovered, pose health threats in drinking water wells if they percolate into the ground water.
3. Petroleum can kill aquatic life and wildlife if it reaches surface water through a storm sewer.
4. Gasoline can create severe fire hazards near traffic, in buildings, or in sewers.
5. Gasoline in a sanitary sewer can present explosion threats and disable a wastewater treatment plant’s ability to treat sewage.

What are the properties of petroleum?

1. Petroleum is a mixture of many chemicals, many of which evaporate quickly. This is especially true of gasoline. That’s why it’s so flammable and why it evaporates quickly from warm pavement.
2. Many of the compounds in petroleum are toxic – especially if they are in high concentrations. The chemicals in petroleum that do not evaporate quickly are “biodegradable,” which means they can be degraded or “eaten up” by bacteria and other microbes in the soil.
3. Optimum degradation occurs if the petroleum is diluted and there is enough air, water and nutrients for the microbes. Firefighters can use these properties of petroleum to their advantage in cleaning up and disposing of waste from small spills.

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