As summarized by Environment Canada, a contingency plan "is a plan for action prepared in anticipation of an oil spill. Contingency plans are essential because they establish practical plans of action for all types of oil spills so that, when spills do occur, a quick response can minimize the damage. The first step in developing a plan is to learn as much about the area as possible. Regardless of the geography or the size of an area, contingency plans normally include:

  • identification of authority and a chain of command;
  • a list of persons and organizations that must be immediately informed of a spill;
  • an inventory of available trained spill personnel and spill response equipment;
  • a list of jobs that must be done (in order of priority);
  • a communication network to coordinate response;
  • probable oil movement patterns under different weather conditions; and
  • sensitivity maps and other technical data.

Planners need to know about:

  • important or sensitive physical and biological resources within or near the area, such as marshes, unusual flora (plant life) and wildlife resources such as fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds;
  • important habitat areas required by particular species for spawning, feeding or migration;
  • tides, currents and local climatic conditions, such as wind and severe weather patterns;
  • shoreline characteristics; and
  • proximity to roads, airports, trained response personnel, oil spill clean-up equipment, etc."


"Given the difficulties of cleaning up oil at sea, many oil spills result in contamination of shorelines. The oil which reaches the coast generally has the greatest environmental and economic impact. It also determines to a large extent the political and public perception of the scale of the incident, as well as the costs. It is important to start removing oil promptly from contaminated shorelines because as time passes and the oil weathers, it will stick more and more firmly to rocks and sea walls, and may become mixed with or buried in sediments. Shoreline clean-up is usually straightforward, however, and does not normally require specialised equipment. Reliance is frequently placed on locally-available equipment and manpower, rather than specialised equipment. Good organisation and management are the key to effective clean-up. Poorly thought out and uncoordinated clean-up efforts usually result in inefficient use of resources and excessive quantities of waste for disposal." (ITOPF)

Shoreline clean-up methods include (see, e.g., U.S. EPA, NOAA + NOAA and USCG, ITOPF, and Environment Canada):

Possible shoreline clean-up methods also include the following methods (however, in many countries these methods may only be used after special permission from the authorities):

  • the use of solidifiers (gelling agents),
  • shoreline cleaning agents,
  • fertilizers to enhance biological remediation, and
  • in situ burning.

The environmentally acceptable disposal of oil and oily waste (debris) is important. As pointed out by EPA: "Cleanup from an oil spill is not considered complete until all waste materials are disposed of properly. The cleanup of an oiled shoreline can create different types of waste materials, including liquid oil, oil mixed with sand, and tar balls. Oil can sometimes be recovered and reused, disposed of by incineration, or placed in landfills". All these methods must be employed with high consideration for the environment in order to avoid new problems of air pollution or leakage of toxic substances into groundwater and rivers.

See also some lessons learned, "findings that have already changed the way we think about cleaning up oil spills" (NOAA).

Sensitivity of coastal environments to oil: Location (where the oil is stranded) and shoreline geology, as well as type of oil that needs to be taken care of, and of course the type and sensitivity of the biological communities (species and habitats) that are likely to be affected by the clean-up operation, are important factors in the choice of clean-up method(s) — see NOAA and EPA. The U.S. Coastguard have listed shoreline types, from the least (low figures) to the most sensitive ones to oil pollution:

  • Exposed rocky cliffs and seawalls
  • Wave cut rocky platforms
  • Fine to medium-grained sand beaches
  • Coarse-grained sand beaches
  • Mixed sand and gravel beaches
  • Gravel beaches/Riprap
  • Exposed tidal flats
  • Sheltered rocky shores/man-made structures
  • Sheltered tidal flats
  • Marshes

It should be noted that other shore types and shallow underwater habitats are also very sensitive to oil pollution, including:

  • Mangroves (And according to ITOPF: "Leaving residual oil to weather and degrade naturally is usually recommended for sensitive shoreline types such as salt marshes and mangroves, because they have been shown to be more easily damaged by the physical disturbance caused by clean-up teams and vehicles than by the oil itself. If any cleaning is attempted, it should be carried out with specialist guidance and advice.")
  • Coral reefs See also NOAA.