3 Myths About Oil Spills in the Shop

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Gravity…right? No matter how much we try—spills happen sometimes. In an auto repair shop, common spills involve toxic fluids like antifreeze, solvents, and especially oil. If these substances make their way into a storm drain, they’ll end up in our local rivers and streams. As a skilled professional, you try to prevent the oil from spilling in the first place by tightening lids and eliminating trip hazards—but if a spill does occur, you’ll need to be able to respond quickly and appropriately. It is crucial to be prepared. So, let’s address three myths about oil spills:

Myth #1: A little spill doesn’t hurt much

You may honestly feel—all things considered—a little oil down the drain doesn’t do much harm. After all, isn’t the water treated before going back into the river? In reality, stormwater that goes down storm drains in many parts of Oregon goes straight to streams or rivers. It is not treated. Allowing oil to enter a storm drain can have the same effect as standing on the bank of the Columbia River and pouring oil directly into the water. And it doesn’t take much. One quart of oil can contaminate one million gallons of water. Used oil is slow to degrade and contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals that stick to everything from sand to bird feathers. For this reason, only rain should go down the storm drain!

Myth #2: Kitty Litter is the Best Option for Cleaning Up Oil Spills

In all likelihood, you’ve seen someone pouring out kitty litter over an oil spill to clean it up. While kitty litter can be effective in cleaning fresh spills, it is not ideal. For one, because it is primarily clay and silica, As the oil-coated litter is handled, or sits too long, oil and dust can seep back onto the shop floor or mix with water run-off from the next rainfall. Ever accidentally step on kitty litter? The clay and fine silica dust sticks to many things, including the bottom of shoes, so it – and the oil on it – goes wherever you go throughout the day—your lobby, near sensitive tools or equipment, the sidewalk, even right back onto the shop floor—and may make its way to the storm drain.

Some alternatives to kitty litter are absorbent powders or sawdust. Absorbent socks and mats, designed specifically for efficient and easy chemical cleanup and disposal, are the best products to use on small oil spills. These products are often found as parts of a complete spill kit you can buy, or individual products you can combine into a spill kit for your business.

Myth #3: Preparing a proper spill kit is expensive and difficult

Sure, a 40-pound bag of kitty litter will run you less than 20 bucks, but then you will need to pour out the whole bag to cover a 3- or 4-gallon spill. Add on the costs of labor and proper disposal, the price is nowhere near the bargain it first appeared to be. Here are some better alternatives:

  1. Commercial spill kits range from $35 for a 5-gallon kit to $100 for a 20-gallon kit. Some of the materials may be re-used.
  2. Homemade spill kits can be cobbled together using material you probably already have hanging around the shop. First, your kit should contain equipment that protects the user—things like gloves and goggles. Then you will need items to help contain the spill like absorbent mats or socks made from sand, ash, or sawdust that will soak up liquid. Sorbent socks are used to surround and contain the spill so it doesn’t spread.
Free spill kits provided by EcoBiz

To prepare for potential spills for other chemicals or products, look at the product’s Safety Data Sheet or read the label; it will give you a good idea of what additional items you may need for your spill kit.

In addition, you will need tools to clean up and remove the spilled substance once it’s contained. This may include shovels, brooms, and garbage bags. Finally, you’ll need to dispose of the spill waste appropriately. For options in Multnomah, Clackamas, or Washington County, go to the Oregon Metro and enter your address to find a list of recyclers in your area that handle hazardous waste.

It’s a best practice to inspect spill kits regularly to make sure all the components are clean, stocked, and ready to go. Of course, the best scenarios are those where no spills occur in to begin with; but if you do have a spill, it’s always better to be prepared.

Contact EcoBiz for assistance with creating a spill plan for your shop.

Report Spills

To report a spill to the storm system or other pollution in the Portland Metro area, contact the appropriate agency below:

  • City of Portland: 503-823-7180 or Online Reporting
  • City of Gresham: 9-1-1
  • Washington County, Clean Water Services: 503-681-3600
  • Clackamas County: 9-1-1

Oregon Emergency Response System (OERS): 800-452-0311
In addition to the above, significant spills may also need to be reported to OERS

Article by: Delandra Clark, City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services