Glenmar Sailing Association
Sailing the Chesapeake Bay

Fuel Spill? A few steps now can change your incident from catastrophic to just simply bad.

Have you ever had a diesel fuel spill overboard? I have! I learned a few things during the correction process that are worth sharing. Had I done a few quick steps earlier, this wouldn’t have been as bad.

  1. Review your insurance coverage now to ensure that a “fuel spill” is covered. I had not done this step. I didn’t think to review the policy for this in advance, but luckily, I was covered.
  2. If a discharge occurs or if you witness a fuel spill, you must report immediately to the National Response Center (NRC) by calling 800-424-8802. They will do a quick interview to determine how the spill can be contained. Then they’ll give you a report number.
  3. If the fuel spill remains onboard your boat, and not overboard yet, turning off your bilge pump will keep the spill contained on your boat and not discharge to the environment. The expense and damage will grow exponentially when the spill is discharged into the environment.

My engine cut out shortly after leaving the dock one morning. I was able to tie off to a fixture and wait for a tow back to my slip. While investigating the engine problem in my slip, I noticed a drip in the bilge. I didn’t know what the drip was, but there was a small leak somewhere. While looking for the source of the leak, my bilge pump automatically turned on. I raised my head from the engine compartment to see a pink fluid being pumped into the water, from my bilge. The pump turned off in a few seconds, but a sheen could be seen on the water. The sheen grew to about two hundred feet across in thirty minutes. 

Now I knew what the leak was and why the engine stopped. I traced the fuel lines and found a loose connection going into the lift pump. I tightened the nut, but the fuel had already been spilled in the waterway. I reported to the National Response Center and the Coast Guard was on its way to investigate the containment situation. They arrived two hours after the spill occurred and determined that no containment was needed. The spill had dissipated and could no longer be seen on the surface of the water. However, I had to sign a document stating that if containment was required, I could be subject to a fine of up to $47,357 per day. 

It is unlikely that the government or authorities will contact you to inform you that your case is closed and you will not be subject to any fines. They will contact you if you will be subject to fines and penalties. When you’re unsure about your fine and penalty situation, discuss it with your insurance company. The insurance company will make payments to marinas, mechanics, surveyors, clean up professionals, etc. When everything is paid and closed, the insurance company should keep your claim “open” just in case sometime in the distant future you are notified of fines and/or penalties you owe. The insurance company still might pay these fines and penalties up to your policy limits.

After correcting the fuel leak and having the bilge pumped out and washed, I filled the tank. I needed five gallons of diesel and had used the engine about five times for approximately four hours since the tank was full. My total fuel lost in the spill was about four gallons. Some of this was spilled in the waterway and some was vacuumed from my bilge. It wasn’t as catastrophic as I first thought it might be, but entire process took my boat out of service for about four weeks.