Two weeks after Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill, Huntersville residents alarmed about ongoing lack of transparency

By: - August 27, 2020 12:42 pm

This map of Mecklenburg County shows hazardous materials pipelines in red, which include fuels and gasoline. The blue lines represent main trunks of natural gas pipelines. (Map: Pipeline and Hazards Materials Safety Administration)

Town of Huntersville holding public meeting tonight to answer questions about the spill and the cleanup plan.

In the early evening of Aug. 14, a person riding an ATV near the Oehler Nature Preserve in Huntersville saw a strange phenomenon: liquid gurgling from beneath the ground and spreading downhill.

More than four feet below, at least 63,000 gallons of gasoline were leaking from a rupture in a pipeline owned by Colonial Pipeline, which operates a 5,550-mile petroleum pipeline system running from Texas, through the southern states, to New Jersey.

The rider notified the town fire department, and at 5:42 p.m., firefighters and Colonial Pipeline officials were dispatched, followed by state and local regulators, to shut down the line, stanch the flow and begin what could become a weeks-, if not months-long, cleanup.

But this is a different story than what Colonial told two state lawmakers shortly after the incident. “They described to us that their Atlanta facility had seen a pressure drop in the line,” State Rep. Christy Clark, who represents Huntersville. “Then a constituent told me about the ATV rider, and that’s when the story from Colonial changed.”

Sen. Natasha Marcus, whose district also includes Huntersville, said she received the same information from Colonial on Aug. 17, three days after the accident. “From the get-go, they issued a misleading statement,” Marcus said. “There are people who can smell gasoline and they have well water. They want to know if they’re in the path [of the contamination].”

Colonial did not respond to an email from Policy Watch asking for clarification.

(Update Thursday, 2:33 p.m.: Colonial responded more than a day after the deadline Policy Watch provided: “The company confirmed that two teenagers riding ATVs discovered the spill. One of the individuals called his parents who called a personal friend, who works for Colonial, and the other called 911. The Huntersville Fire Department and the Colonial employee arrived at the scene at the same time. Per Colonial procedures, the Colonial Pipeline employee confirmed the leak and notified Colonial’s Control Center in Alpharetta, Georgia. The pipeline was shut down within minutes after the release was confirmed and Colonial, in conjunction with a variety of local partners, immediately began the response effort. The majority of the product was recovered as it was released.”

The Town of Huntersville and Colonial Pipeline are providing online updates about the cleanup, including a self-congratulatory video about the company’s response to the accident. But the conflicting accounts, as well as a lack of clarity on the cause of the accident and extent of the contamination, have failed to tell residents what they really want to know: Considering Colonial Pipeline’s troubling accident history, what caused the breach? How long had the pipeline leaked? How deep is the contamination? And is the gasoline headed for drinking water wells?

Erin Cohen’s home in The Pavilion subdivision backs up to the pipeline route. Like the other homeowners in The Pavilion, her family relies on private wells for their drinking water. The company and the NC Department of Environmental Quality have overseen the testing of 17 residential wells within a 2,000-foot radius of the spill. So far, Colonial and DEQ say that the testing shows no gasoline or gasoline byproducts in the wells

But it took five days to get the breach under control, and it’s unclear what amount of contamination remains in the soil and groundwater, and if it could be heading toward The Pavilion. “What are they going to do in the future?” Cohen said. “We don’t want to be left in the dark.”



So far, Colonial says it has excavated approximately 780 tons of soil, installed more than 100 soil borings as well as  groundwater monitoring wells and “recovery product points,” — places to collect the escaped gasoline. The North Prong of Clarke Creek runs through the nature preserve; sampling has not detected gasoline in surface water, but tests are ongoing.

DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard said the state is requiring Colonial Pipeline to conduct additional sampling and monitoring, in addition to a developing a health and safety plan.

DEQ documents classify the risk of the incident as “High,” and direct Colonial to build “an interceptor trench” downhill of the spill area and to allow for easier removal of the gasoline and to limit the amount that migrates through the groundwater.

An Initial Assessment Report must be filed with DEQ by Nov. 14.

The leak came from a segment of the Colonial Pipeline that routes through a right-of-way in The Pavilion and the 142-acre Oehler Nature Preserve. According to Mecklenburg County, the elevation within the preserve varies from 644 feet to 742 feet, with its lowest point along North Prong Clarke Creek and the highest running parallel with Huntersville-Concord Road.

The creek provides a potential habitat for a small freshwater fish known as the Carolina darter, which the NC Wildlife Resources Commission has designated as a Special Concern Species, one that requires monitoring. “The property is also important for general watershed protection,” according to a Mecklenburg County website.

Rick Lyke, whose home also abuts the pipeline right-of-way, is skeptical of the company’s corporate ownership, which includes Koch Industries, a fossil fuel behemoth owned by the Koch Brothers. “Colonial says they want to be a good neighbor,” Lyke said, “but there are big time oil companies on their board.”

Lyke is also concerned about Colonial’s safety record, which reflects significant lapses. “We’re looking for transparency from local, county and state officials and for the company to be held accountable,” Lyke said.

The company has accumulated 23 civil enforcement actions and more than $500,000 in civil penalties issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration since 2007. In 1996 a pipeline ruptured in South Carolina, spilling 1 million gallons of fuel and contaminating 23 miles of the Reedy River. Colonial pleaded guilty to criminal negligence — the company knew that part of the pipeline was weak — and was fined $41 million under the Clean Water Act. The company also paid $13 million in settlements. It was one of the largest environmental disasters in South Carolina history.

According to federal documents, other notices of violations issued to Colonial Pipeline include:

  • 2012: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration cited Colonial for failing to include emergency procedures in its operations and maintenance manual.
  • 2016: The company reported five spills in Alabama in that year alone. A fatal pipeline explosion occurred because of failures by a excavation crew unrelated to Colonial.
  • 2017: The PHMSA  issued a notice of violation to the company for failing to adequately train its control room operators in Linden, N.J.
  • 2018: PHMSA fined Colonial $32,800 for failing to follow its own written procedures and manufacturer’s specifications for pipeline coating in Cumberland, County Va.
  • 2019: Colonial was again cited for training issues in Maryland by the PHMSA. The agency reduced a $50,000 fine to $29,300.
  • July 2020: PHMSA fined Colonial $61,000 stemming from a 2016 investigation into training inadequacies at its headquarters in Alpharetta, Ga., near Atlanta. The company failed to evaluate the performance of several workers whose actions contributed to several accidents. Colonial also failed to document all the details contributing to the accidents.
    Colonial Pipeline carries gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products from Texas through the South and then to New Jersey. (Map: Colonial Pipeline)

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.