Mystery deepens over origin of dangerous chemicals found at massive gasoline spill

By: - March 30, 2021 1:11 pm

DEQ and Colonial are considering the possibility that the fire suppressant became contaminated when it was mixed with water. Photo: Adobe Stock

Colonial Pipeline’s own tests indicate high levels of PFAS that could be linked to clean-up efforts, but state regulators say they need more data

Mysterious discrepancies in test results between Colonial Pipeline and the NC Department of Environmental Quality have raised questions about the origin of toxic perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — found in material used at a major gasoline spill in Huntersville.

On Aug. 14, 2020, a breach in a segment of a pipeline owned Colonial Pipeline below the Oehler Nature Preserve spilled an estimated 1.2 million gallons of gasoline, the largest onshore accident of its kind in the U.S. in more than 20 years. As part of its response, Colonial Pipeline used a fire suppressant known as F-500 encapsulate to prevent vapors from the gasoline from igniting.

At the time of the accident, “DEQ was told [by Colonial] that the encapsulate used was PFAS-free,” agency spokeswoman Laura Leonard said.

Nonetheless, DEQ asked Colonial to test for PFAS in the suppressant because agency staff were aware of the potential for contamination based on other investigations, as well as the magnitude of the spill, Leonard said. “Out of an abundance of caution, DEQ collected — and directed Colonial to collect— samples of the encapsulate.”

Colonial’s tested for 39 types of PFAS from samples of the F-500 conducted on Aug. 20. The results showed the suppressant allegedly contained high levels of three, according to a September lab report sent to the company:

By comparison, if these levels were found in drinking water they would be hundreds, even thousands of times greater than state and federal health advisory goals.

However, there are legitimate concerns about the quality of the data. DEQ “split samples” with Colonial, meaning both parties tested the same samples to compare results at different labs. No PFAS were detected in the F-500 samples collected by DEQ. The agency’s non-detects were “due to elevated reporting limits,” according to an September 2020 email to the company from DEQ toxicologist Amy Risen. That means the lab’s testing protocol was not sensitive enough to detect PFAS at certain levels.

A Colonial spokesman told Policy Watch that after the spill, “the response team used a product containing F-500 encapsulate agent, which is commonly used to extinguish fires and to control fumes. According to the manufacturer, the F-500 encapsulate agent utilized at the [spill] location does not contain PFAS. We continue to collaborate with NCDEQ in ongoing reviews of data collected during environmental testing.”

DEQ and company officials discussed the varying results yesterday; Colonial is reanalyzing some of its samples, as well as providing additional data, according to the agency.

“We have data that says we need more data,” Leonard of DEQ told Policy Watch last week. “We’re following the science.”

F-500 encapsulator is manufactured by Hazard Control Technologies, based in Georgia. The company’s Material Safety Data Sheet for F-500 states the material contains no fluorine or PFAS. A representative for Hazard Control Technologies reiterated to Policy Watch that F-500 is free of the compounds; a company official told Policy Watch HCT is conferring with Colonial about the test results.

The Material Safety Data Sheet for the F-500 encapsulate (Source: Hazard Control Technologies)

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS. They are found in hundreds of consumer products, including microwave popcorn bags, fast food containers, nonstick cookware, as well as compost and some firefighting foams. Known as “forever chemicals,” they persist in the environment, particularly in groundwater and drinking water. Exposure to these compounds has been scientifically linked to many health problems, including thyroid disorders, liver damage, a suppressed immune system, low-birth weight, decreased fertility, high cholesterol and kidney and testicular cancers.

DEQ and Colonial are considering the possibility that the F-500 became contaminated when it was mixed with water from a local fire truck and then sprayed on the site using the fire department’s equipment.

Colonial’s test results of the “mixed” product showed high levels of PFOSA: 4,810 ppt. Likewise, DEQ’s sampling showed high levels of PFOSA: 5,620 ppt.

Municipal water in the “mixed product” was collected from the valve on the Huntersville Fire Department tanker truck, according to emails between Colonial and DEQ. However, the municipal water samples tested either below 1 part per trillion or “non-detect.”

If the municipal water isn’t the source, that could mean residue from a type of foam, known as AFFF could still be present in firefighting equipment. AFFF has long been used in firefighting and the military. Because this foam contains PFAS, it is gradually being phased out.

The Pelham, Ala., fire department transported the F-500 in containers to the site and reportedly used a hose to spray the F-500 using Huntersville’s equipment.

Huntersville Fire Department spokesman Bill Suthard told Policy Watch “no product from our tanker was sprayed during the emergency response.”

The mixed product containing PFAS was sprayed on the ground during the emergency response. Stormwater samples taken on Aug. 20 from puddles at the  spill and emergency response area also contained several types of the compounds, including PFOSA and others that are found in firefighting foam. However all soil and residual water was excavated, removed and shipped to a lined landfill at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. according to a Colonial spokesman.

DEQ has requested data from Colonial showing no PFAS entered the environment because of the emergency response.

If these PFAS compounds reached surface water or groundwater, they are difficult, if not impossible to remove using current technologies. There were 17 types of PFAS found in the North Prong of Clark Creek, according to Colonial sampling taken three days after the spill. Detectable concentrations ranged from less than 1 part per trillion for PFHpA to 14.9 ppt for PFOSA.  Because PFAS are so widespread in the environment, there could be many sources of the contamination, not necessarily the Colonial spill.

Policy Watch reported in mid-December that the suppressant contained PFAS, based on information from the NC Department of Environmental Quality. Policy Watch again reported on Feb. 25 about the PFAS detections as part of a story about DEQ citing Colonial with a continuing Notice of Violation. Shortly after the February story published, Colonial requested a correction about PFAS being released at the site. Policy Watch corrected the story, and has now added the most recent information.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

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