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Energy & Environment

Feds Warn Colonial Pipeline Is At Risk; Company Says Leak Is Deeper Than Reported

Colonial Pipeline system map
Federal regulators have warned that the entire 5,500 mile length of the Colonial Pipeline could be a risk for gasoline spills like the one in Huntersville last August.

New mapping shows gasoline contamination from a spill on the Colonial Pipeline north of Charlotte last summer goes deeper into the soil than previously reported. That news comes as federal officials warn that similar leaks could happen elsewhere along the 5,500-mile pipeline from Texas to New Jersey.

At least 1.2 million gallons of gasoline spilled last August from a broken section of the pipeline east of downtown Huntersville. The leak was discovered by two teens who were riding all-terrain vehicles in the Oehler Nature Preserve, off Huntersville-Concord Road. It's the largest spill of its kind in North Carolina and one of the largest in the nation.

Colonial has blamed the spill on a crack in a previous repair in the pipe wall. Federal regulators said the problem is that the same type of repair, known as a "Type A sleeve," is found all along the pipeline — and has failed repeatedly.

The federal Department of Transportation pipeline safety division recently issued a proposed order that would require Colonial to list all similar repairs and improve its leak detection systems. DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said:

"(Our) ongoing investigation indicates that conditions may exist on the Colonial Pipeline System that pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property or the environment. The conditions that led to the failure potentially exist throughout the Colonial Pipeline System. Further, Colonial’s inability to effectively detect and respond to this release, as well as other past releases, has potentially exacerbated the impacts of this and numerous other failures over the operational history of Colonial’s entire system. After evaluating the preliminary findings of fact described below and considering the characteristics of the Colonial Pipeline System, as well as the failure history of that system, it appears that the continued operation of the Colonial Pipeline System without corrective measures would pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property, or the environment."

Colonial said in a statement that is already learning from the Huntersville leak and doing some of what the DOT wants.

The statement, in part, read: "Colonial began seeking to implement learnings from the Huntersville incident almost immediately after it occurred. This included identifying sections of pipe with potentially similar conditions and excavating, evaluating and in some cases enhancing those pipe segments. Colonial also has leak detection systems in place on each of its pipelines that meet, and in some cases exceed, current regulatory requirements and continues to invest in improvements to leak detection technology."

Colonial said it already has replaced the broken section of pipe and sent the cracked segment to an independent laboratory for analysis "to better understand what happened, and to apply findings to make improvements going forward."

"We will continue to learn from this event and apply those lessons learned to our overall operations," the company said.

The proposed order is dated March 29 and says Colonial has 30 days to formally respond. Once the order takes effect, Colonial then will have 90 days to submit a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of its leak detection system along the entire 5,500-mile route, including the main line and any connecting segments. It then must use the findings to plan repairs.

Contamination Deeper Than Reported

092820 Colonial pipeline cleanup.jpg
David Boraks
Colonial Pipeline workers were cleaning up the gas leak last September off Huntersville-Concord Road in Huntersville.

Meanwhile, Colonial said this week that new 3D mapping using ultraviolet light and subsurface probes shows that gasoline has seeped deeper into the soil in some areas than previously known.

"While the product (gasoline) appears to remain contained to the general vicinity of the release location and previously delineated product area, there are zones where product is located deeper in the soil than originally modeled," the company said.

Colonial gave no measurements or estimates. It says it expects to remove gasoline from those areas through its existing cleanup plan.

Given this and other new data, Colonial asked the state Department of Environmental Quality for more time to revise its Comprehensive Site Assessment. The DEQ said in February that the 1,600-page Jan. 20 report did not have enough information to determine the full impact of the incident. It listed 22 deficiencies and gave Colonial until April 26 to update the assessment.

In a statement Friday, NCDEQ said it's sticking to the April 26 deadline. DEQ Secretary Dionne Delli-Gatti also criticized Colonial for continuing to update its estimates of the size of the leak.

“It is unacceptable that for eight months Colonial Pipeline has been unable to provide a reliable accounting of the amount of gasoline released into this community,” Delli-Gatti said. “We will take all necessary steps and exercise all available authority to hold Colonial Pipeline accountable for what has become one of the largest gasoline spills in the country.”

In its latest update Friday, Colonial said it has removed about 85% of the estimated 1.2 million gallons spilled. But NCDEQ said the company has reported that it is continuing to remove 3,000 to 5,000 gallons a day from wells on the site. That suggests the 1.2 million gallon estimate may be too low, said DEQ.

Effects of the Spill, Regulatory Actions

After the spill, NCDEQ issued a Notice of Violation to Colonial in September. It requires the company to restore groundwater in the area to state standards and to submit regular progress reports.

Tests of groundwater have shown gasoline-related chemicals at levels above accepted environmental standards. But Colonial said tests of drinking water wells in the area have found no contamination.

Colonial has estimated that the leak will cost it $10.3 million, with at least $2.5 million of that slated for environmental cleanup of the contaminated soil and groundwater.

Legislation Targets Spills

State Senator Natasha Marcus, who represents north Mecklenburg County, has filed legislation to address pipeline spills like this one. Her Senate Bill 549 is titled “Improve Pipeline Safety.” Among other things, it would appropriate $200,000 for a DEQ study of the condition, safety and environmental impact of petroleum pipelines. The study would include recommendations for improvements.

“We cannot allow a tragic mess like this to happen again. Our state can and should monitor aging hazardous liquid pipelines, rather than rely solely on the pipeline company and the federal government to be our watchdogs," Marcus said. "My bill calls on the NC DEQ to study what can be done at the state level to protect us in the future.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

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