Colonial Pipeline contamination spreading in Huntersville; MVP Southgate natural gas project on ice, and more

By: - October 25, 2022 12:00 pm

The orange arrows represent the direction of the groundwater flow. The star shows where the gasoline spill occurred, in the Oehler Nature Preserve in Huntersville. (Base map: Colonial Pipeline filings with DEQ)


Aplume of polluted groundwater is spreading in Mecklenburg County, where Colonial Pipeline is responsible for the largest gasoline spill in the U.S. since the early 1990s.

On Aug. 14, 2020, two teenage boys found gasoline bubbling from the ground at the Oehler Nature Preserve, in Huntersville. The company now estimates 2 million gallons leaked from a section of pipeline that had broken roughly a month before. The groundwater contains very high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and other toxic contaminants related to petroleum products: toluene, xylene, naphthalene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH.

Since the accident, Colonial has been pumping contaminated groundwater from the site and hauling it away for disposal. But groundwater being groundwater – it likes to move according to gravity, especially when it mingles with gasoline – the plume is expanding. 

Information from Colonial’s network of monitoring and recovery wells show that, over time, gasoline has migrated “somewhat from the original release site but remains contained in the general vicinity of the release location,” a Colonial spokesperson told Policy Watch via email.

To contain the plume, Colonial has installed hydraulic control wells. When they are fully operational, the wells will “generate a significant amount of additional water being extracted from the ground,” the spokesperson said.

To reduce costs of hauling contaminated wastewater offsite, Colonial is proposing to build a permanent wastewater treatment plant on land it has purchased. The plant would discharge treated water, as much as 500,000 gallons per day, into the North Prong of Clark Creek. DEQ would limit concentrations of contaminants in the wastewater, but those maximums have not been finalized. DEQ is reviewing the company’s wastewater discharge permit application.

A Colonial spokesperson said the plant would be “pre-assembled, packaged on skis and similar in appearance to what’s currently onsite” that could be enclosed. “It’s important to notethat it would not resemble a large municipal wastewater treatment plant,” the spokesperson said.

Colonial would first install a pilot system to help determine the necessary capacity. The permanent system would be enclosed in structures “that will be designed to be consistent with surrounding architecture, which includes nearby horse farms, to minimize visual and sound impacts,” according to the spokesperson. “The dimensions of those structures have not yet been determined. We are working with Huntersville town officials on the necessary permits.”

The company says testing shows no drinking water wells have been contaminated; however, “out of an abundance of caution,” Colonial did pay for some residents to connect to the public water system. The company has also bought three homes and 26 acres of land from private owners, for a total of $1.7 million.

Earlier this year, DEQ fined Colonial $4.75 million as part of a consent order regarding the spill. The accident was the company’s 32nd in North Carolina since 2000.


MVP Southgate’s proposed route

MVP Southgate drops eminent domain proceedings against 70 landowners in NC 

Speaking of pipelines, the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project, which would carry natural gas into Rockingham and Alamance counties from a fracking operation in West Virginia, is … well, it’s unclear from the court filings, but it no longer appears imminent.

Last Friday, the company’s lawyers dropped eminent domain proceedings against more than 70 landowners in Alamance and Rockingham counties whose properties – 275 acres’ worth — were within the pipeline route.  

“As the timing, design and scope of this project continue to be evaluated, MVP has elected to dismiss this action,” attorneys for the company wrote, but “has not abandoned this project.”

MVP is co-owned by several investors, including EQM Midstream Partners and NextEra Capital Holdings.

David Naylor, one of the landowners whose property includes a historic dairy farm, told Policy Watch that he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but concerned that the company “might have something up their sleeve.”

In federal jargon “abandoned” is a legal term. FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, must approve the abandonment of a natural gas project. 

MVP Southgate could still change the route.

The Southgate leg of the main line would have entered North Carolina near Eden, in Rockingham County, and traveled roughly 50 miles southeast to Haw River, in Alamance County.

In total, the southern portion would cross 207 streams, three ponds and temporarily affect 17,726 linear feet of streams, 6,538 square feet of open waters, and 14 acres of wetlands; another 0.02 of an acre of wetlands would be permanently damaged. Nearly 14 acres of riparian buffers would also be affected. MVP Southgate would cross the Dan River, home to endangered and threatened species, and Stony Creek Reservoir, the main drinking water supply for the City of Burlington.

When Dominion Energy and Duke Energy pulled the plug on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, they too, avoided the word “abandoned,” instead using the term “canceled.”

One major difference between the ACP and MVP Southgate projects is that the former actually had installed pipeline along portions of the route. MVP Southgate has not done so, in part because in 2020 the NC Department of Environmental Quality denied a water quality permit for the project, citing the environmental harm and uncertainty about the main line’s viability. Without the main MVP, the Southgate project is moot.

The company appealed DEQ’s decision in federal court and lost.

Because of successful legal challenges, and the company’s own environmental record – 300 violations and counting – the main MVP, which would route through sensitive terrain in Virginia, has been delayed for years and is billions of dollars over budget.

In North Carolina, controversy over the MVP Southgate project, and natural gas in general, helped torpedo the nomination of Dionne Delli-Gatti as DEQ secretary. In the spring of 2021, a Senate nominations committee led by Sen. Paul Newton, a former Duke Energy executive, voted down Delli-Gatti’s nomination by Gov. Roy Cooper. In rejecting the nomination, Newton and other conservative committee members cited Delli-Gatti’s alleged “inability to articulate the governor’s energy policy” and her lack of familiarity with the MVP Southgate project.

However, shortly before the committee proceedings, a lobbyist for the MVP Southgate project, Theresa Kostrzewa, met with Newton and other Republican lawmakers about the project, Policy Watch reported. She told Policy Watch at the time that her clients wanted to know “how to get the permit through.”

Despite the role natural gas plays in driving climate change – the methane emitted as part of natural gas production and distribution is among the most potent of greenhouse gases – the state’s infatuation with the fossil fuel continues.

The Energy Policy Council recently released a draft of its biennial report. In it, the council calls for an expansion of natural gas infrastructure, including pipelines for biogas generated by enormous swine and poultry farms. Those concentrated feeding operations pollute the groundwater and drinking water, which capturing methane will not fix.

Public comment on the biennial report ends Friday, Oct. 28.

Eviction of hurricane survivors from motel “unacceptable”

ReBuild NC Director Laura Hogshead testified before a state government oversight committee last month, where lawmakers questioned the mismanagement of the hurricane recovery program. (Photo: Screenshot from live stream)

It took two weeks, but ReBuild NC, also known as the NC Officer of Recovery and Resiliency, responded to Policy Watch’s inquiry about the eviction of hurricane survivors from a Fayetteville motel.

A ReBuild NC spokesperson told Policy Watch via email on Oct. 21 that the situation was “unacceptable.” Motel managers didn’t inform ReBuild NC of the evictions until after they had contacted the hurricane survivors, the spokesperson said. Both occurred on Oct. 6.

At 11:30 that morning, management at the Extended Stay America notified two families they had to leave by 5 p.m., ostensibly for violating motel policy. However, one hurricane survivor, who was not evicted, told Policy Watch the motel had not provided any written policies.

Since ReBuild NC does not have contracts with the motels, there was no legal requirement for Extended Stay America to notify the state before the evictions.

One family who was evicted told Policy Watch that they had to spend one night in their hurricane-damaged, dilapidated mobile home, without water or electricity. The family has been displaced for more than a year and a half, with no progress on their house. The family is now living in a Lumberton motel, but had to leave their dog with former neighbors; the motel does not accept pets. Unlike the Extended Stay, the Lumberton motel has no kitchen, so the family must order take-out for their meals.

Horne, a national disaster recovery firm, is contracted with the state for case management, which entails guiding hurricane survivors through early phases of the temporary relocation process. Horne books the motels, and ReBuild NC pays the bills, currently upward of $13 million to temporarily house survivors of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

Horne’s contract with the state was scheduled to expire on Sept. 30, but was extended through the end of the year while the work is being brought within the agency.

This will allow for improved communication and more direct engagement with the hotels,” a Rebuild NC spokesperson told Policy Watch via email. “NCORR is working to ensure that case managers are notified of a resident’s possible hotel policy violation before any action is taken. Our goal is and will be to provide families in our program with safe and secure housing through the TRA program while their home is completed.”

Hundreds of hurricane survivors have repeatedly complained to ReBuild NC about their case managers. Some have said that months pass without any contact, and when the survivors do hear from them, they get no firm answers about the status of their case. Turnover is high, and some survivors have had more than 10 case managers. One survivor told Policy Watch that their case manager asked them to fix her car and called outside of business hours to discuss her own family issues.

Horne requires its case managers to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to documents obtained by Policy Watch, which prohibits them from speaking publicly, including with the media, about their work. 

It’s unclear if bringing the caseload – nearly 4,200 applicants – directly under state authority will solve the problem. One case manager, a state employee, told Policy Watch that their teams, which read off scripts, aren’t receiving adequate training to address the needs of hurricane survivors. 

As of Oct. 18, ReBuild reported 808 homes have been completed; that figure includes 201 that were finished by a HUD-funded Robeson County program in 2018-2019.

Read Policy Watch’s ongoing investigation of the ReBuild NC.

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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.