Massive gasoline spill near Huntersville almost 18 times greater than first reported

Massive gasoline spill near Huntersville almost 18 times greater than first reported
A crack in the wall of a pipeline caused nearly 1.2 million gallons of gasoline to spill in Mecklenburg County’s Oehler Nature Preserve near Huntersville’s town limits in August. (Source: Mecklenburg County)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - A crack in the wall of a pipeline caused nearly 1.2 million gallons of gasoline to spill in Mecklenburg County’s Oehler Nature Preserve near Huntersville’s town limits in August, Colonial Pipeline Co. said in a report filed to the state on Wednesday.

But why the crack formed in the underground pipeline off Huntersville-Concord Road is still being investigated by an outside metallurgist, Angie Kolar, Colonial’s vice president of operations services and its chief risk officer, told The Charlotte Observer.

The spill was among the largest in the state, Michael Regan, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said in announcing a notice of violation against the company in September. Then-President-elect Joe Biden selected Regan this month to be the first Black person to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In September, Regan said 273,000 gallons of gasoline spilled Aug. 14, releasing amounts of benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene and possibly other petroleum chemicals that exceeded groundwater quality standards.

But the estimated amount of gasoline released from the underground pipeline was over four times greater: 1,119,982 gallons, the company reported to regulators Wednesday night. And the amount was nearly 18 times greater than the 63,000 gallons that the county originally reported in August.

On Thursday, state officials said they ordered Colonial Pipeline in November to recalculate how much gasoline was released. The order came after state staff found the company “significantly underestimated the volume of gasoline released from the spill,” according to a state Department of Environmental Quality news release.

“The size and scope of this spill requires a rigorous approach to oversight and remediation,” Michael Scott, director of the N.C. Division of Waste Management said in the release.

Scott promised a “thorough review ... to determine the full extent of the impact in order to guide the cleanup and protection of public health and the environment.”

He said DEQ “will continue to hold Colonial accountable and oversee their cleanup efforts.”

Speaking Wednesday from company headquarters outside of Atlanta, Kolar said Colonial Pipeline Co. has recovered 661,710 gallons of gasoline and expects to stay on site “for years” as its wells recover gasoline.

About 50 workers help with the cleanup each day, company officials said at the site Wednesday.

“We regret this has occurred,” Kolar said. “We understand the cause for concern of our neighbors, but we have and will continue to be transparent. We understand it will take a long time. We’ll be there as long as it takes.”

COLONIAL WANTS TO ‘REGAIN TRUST’

Colonial Pipeline Co. will continue to work with the nature preserve and state and county officials on its efforts to restore impacted land to a better condition than before the spill, Kolar said.

“We, of course, will remain committed to regaining the trust of our neighbors in that area,” she added.

Colonial has installed 131 wells — 50 to recover petroleum and 81 to monitor the spill to make sure it’s not getting into water that people use in their homes, according to Kolar.

No petroleum has been found in residents’ wells since two ATV riders discovered the spill Aug. 14 and the company repaired the pipe Aug. 19, Kolar said. Colonial says on its website that it shut down the pipeline “in a matter of minutes and crews were dispatched to the site.”

On Nov. 10, workers removed the section of pipe that cracked so it could be analyzed in a lab, she said.

The company has tested drinking water wells weekly in a 1,500-foot radius of the spill, collecting more than 150 samples, she said. The DEQ established the 1,500-foot radius, according to Kolar.

NO PETROLEUM IN DRINKING WATER

No gasoline has been found in drinking water samples, and no petroleum appears to have spread beyond the area of the spill, Kolar said.

The company has offered to hook up to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public water system anybody who lives in the 1,500-foot radius. Multiple air monitoring stations have been installed near the spill, company officials said.

Kolar said Colonial Pipeline Co. bought three homes near the site, mainly for space needed for the ongoing cleanup, but she did not know the overall price paid to homeowners.

Five of nine property owners have accepted Colonial Pipeline’s offer to be connected to public water and have been hooked up to it, according to the company.

While the Colonial pipeline has been in Mecklenburg County for more than 50 years, Kolar said the age of the pipeline may not necessarily be to blame for the crack. “We’re continuing to await the metallurgical analysis to determine the exact cause,” she said.

Kolar said the company doesn’t know how many days passed from the time the pipeline wall cracked until the ATV riders discovered the spill. The company also doesn’t know why the spill wasn’t detected by its various monitoring measures.

The company does weekly aerial patrols of the right-of-way for its two pipelines through the area — double the 26 yearly patrols required by regulators, according to Kolar.

The company also conducts an extensive public awareness program so people know to call 811 to report a spill or other incident.

“We also have a control center that monitors the pipeline 24-7, 365, based on American Petroleum Institute standards,” she said. And the company runs a series of tools at least once every five years through its lines to monitor conditions, she added.

NC DEQ ISSUES MANDATES

In September, Regan’s department ordered the company to restore groundwater quality to state standards and submit detailed monthly reports on everything from the results of soil, surface water and well water sampling to its excavation and disposal of contaminated soil.

“This is one of the largest gasoline spills the state has ever had,” Regan said. “Cleanup will take time, and we will be there every step of the way to ensure Colonial Pipeline protects public health and the environment during their remediation efforts.”

Regulators also told the company to submit the Comprehensive Site Assessment report by Wednesday night.

The department could assess financial penalties if Colonial misses deadlines and other requirements under the notice, but did not say how much of a fine could be assessed.

According to the company, Colonial pipes gasoline in one of the lines running through Mecklenburg and diesel, jet fuel and home heating oil in a second line from refineries primarily located on the Gulf Coast. Customers throughout the South and East receive the products through more than 5,500 miles of pipeline.

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