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Company Behind Pipeline In Huntersville Has A History Of Leaks And Spills

Courtesy Mike Harvey
An aerial look at the Colonial Pipeline work site on Huntersville-Concord Road.

Last month, about 63,000 gallons of gasoline leaked out of the Colonial Pipeline in Huntersville. It was the pipeline’s largest leak in the state. But it wasn’t the company's first leak.

At a recent Huntersville community meeting, Colonial Pipeline incident commander Greg Glaze faced almost two hours of questions from residents concerned about the leak. When asked what the company knew so far about what caused it, Glaze said the following:

"We are committed to making sure that we understand what happened so that we can prevent this from happening again in the future. So, we will investigate this to understand it. We will be providing that information to our regulators and such. That will be public information. So, we do not have an issue with sharing that information."

Many of the residents’ questions concerned possible impacts the leak could have on drinking wells and surface water. They also asked about possible soil contamination and what Colonial would report and when. Glaze had to answer a barrage of questions about why Colonial wasn’t giving residents more details about the leak.

"I am going to take this feedback that I’m getting from you, and I will share that with my company," Glaze said. "I’m committing to you that we are going to do a better job of being more transparent."

This isn’t the first leak along the 5,500-mile pipeline. The federal agency that regulates the pipeline, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has cited Colonial 27 times since 2000. These citations ranged from less serious notices of possible infractions to orders for Colonial to take corrective action because of serious safety or environmental risks.

Notable citations by the agency for Colonial Pipeline include: 

  • August 2019 - Assessed penalty of $29,300 related to training issues after an inspection of a facility in Maryland.
  • August 2018 - Assessed $67,000 penalty for not evaluating employees connected to three accidents in Alpharetta, Georgia. The penalty was reduced to $61,100 in July 2020.
  • March 2018 - Assessed penalty of $32,800 for not complying with Colonial Pipeline’s own standards for how it coats its pipeline for a section in Cumberland County, Virginia. The agency said the violation was a “non-high consequence area,” but that failing to coat properly could lead to faster pipeline corrosion.

  • September 2016 - Ongoing corrective action order (the most serious citation) for the large 2016 Pelham, Alabama, spill. Colonial Pipeline was required to analyze what caused the leak, conduct testing of the pipe and affected soil, and review its emergency response plan.

An incident in 2016 near Birmingham, Alabama, was the company’s largest spill and made national headlines. There, a pipeline leak released around 300,000 gallons of gasoline. Weeks later, contractors working on the leak sparked an explosion that killed two workers.
Colonial said the cause of the original leak was faulty work by contractors. The resulting shutdown of the pipeline caused a gasoline shortage on the East Coast for weeks.

In South Carolina, 1 million gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the Reedy River in 1996. Cleanup of that spill was part of a larger settlement between Colonial Pipeline and the EPA. Colonial paid $34 million in fines for the spills and the EPA cited it for gross negligence.

"The release in Huntersville is the first release of that size," said Scott Bullock of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Bullock leads the department's section that gets reports from Colonial whenever there are leaks.

"Colonial Pipeline has had 25 documented petroleum releases since 1989, ranging from approximately 200 gallons up to about 920 gallons," Bullock said.

Those other leaks in North Carolina often have been incidents at facilities that have tanks and piping that create more opportunities for leaks or breakages. Bullock said pipeline companies have to report leaks of more than 25 gallons. His department was working closely with Colonial Pipeline for the Huntersville leak.

"Colonial Pipeline has followed their requirements, and we will continue to of course monitor the situation," Bullock said. "We have daily meetings to discuss the site, and we’re making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do."

Bullock said the process may be frustrating for some residents but it could take months of testing and reporting to determine the environmental impact. Colonial said it would release this week a 30-day report and include the total amount of gallons spilled, which may change from its initial estimate of 63,000 gallons.

Another report about the cause of the leak and the extent of contamination of the area, if any, is due in mid-November.

Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.