How Much Fuel is it Illegal to Spill Overboard?

by LegalFix
Posted: September 19, 2022
Admiralty and maritime law

For those who love being on the open water, there are a few rules to always keep in mind. Rules include not drinking and boating, limiting boating in inclement weather, and always wearing a life jacket. Although these are guidelines to live by for a safe foray into the lake, there is another rule that fishers should always follow: don’t spill or dump fuel in any body of water. 

Although rarely intentional, sometimes boats will leak fuel into the water. Because of the localized nature of spills, they can contaminate the water and become injurious to any wildlife in it. As a result, the water becomes inconsumable and animals can get the oil caught in their feathers or even drown in the spill as it descends to the bottom of the lake, river, or ocean. 

We don’t typically hear of boaters getting in trouble for fuel spills. However, in recent years, the news has featured abundant stories of oil spills that have disrupted hundreds of thousands of ocean ecosystems. A couple of the most famous oil spills include the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Notable Oil Spills

BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Occurring in 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest accidental spill in the history of the world. After an explosion below an oil well left 11 dead and created a massive crater within the well, oil gushed from the broken well for more than 85 consecutive days, releasing a total of 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Over 12 years later, the coastlines of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are still recovering from the effects of this devastating spill. 

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill 

Occurring in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the second largest recorded oil spill in the history of the United States. The cause of the spill was due to the Exxon Valdez running into the Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The collision created a crater in the tanker’s hull and spilled over 11 million gallons of crude oil into the water, covering over 1,300 miles of coastline. Following the oil spill, it was discovered that the ship’s captain had been drinking and had allowed an unlicensed crew member to steer the ship. Before the spill, the Prince William Sound was a notable refuge for wildlife and had been left relatively well-preserved. However, the spill caused over 250,000 deaths in the area’s various wildlife, including birds, otters, and whales.

What Happens If You Spill Fuel?

The stories of BP and Exxon help to demonstrate how serious spilling fuel into a body of water can become on a large scale. While personal craft never carry nearly as much fuel as either of the cases above, it’s important for boaters to remember that spilling any amount of fuel into the water that causes a sheen on the surface is illegal. Although some boaters ignore spills and use dish soap to hide the evidence, this is not a solution. Rather than cleaning up the spill, dish soap actually pushes the oil to the bottom where it may have longer-lasting effects on the local marine life. 

If you spill fuel in the water, it’s important to take the appropriate actions to remedy the situation. In addition to being ecologically responsible, it’s an essential step to ensure that you don't put yourself on the receiving end of criminal charges for trying to cover up your fuel spill — which is a very real possibility. 

 If you are on a craft that’s spilled oil, here are some of the steps to take:

  1. If there’s an active leak, do your best to stop it. 

  2. Contact the closest marina and get assistance.

  3. Report the incident to the Coast Guard Response Center (800-424-8802) immediately. You may be fined for a spill, but the penalties for failing to report are far more severe. 

  4. Contain the spill with any oil absorbent material on hand and wait for further instructions from the Coast Guard. 

Know the Laws with LegalFix

If you do find yourself in a situation where you have to deal with a fuel spill, having the right advice can make all the difference in how easily you’re able to handle legal repercussions. Although hiring an attorney can be expensive and stressful, you can get free legal advice from attorneys familiar with environmental and maritime law on LegalFix, your go-to source for free legal information. You can find helpful articles and use the free search and information tools to better understand the state and federal laws that affect you. Just visit to find all this content — and check back often for more valuable legal products and services coming soon.