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NC sues Colonial Pipeline, seeking data on massive Huntersville spill

Wells are removing gasoline at the site of Colonial Pipeline's spill in Huntersville.
David Boraks
Wells are removing gasoline at the site of Colonial Pipeline's spill in Huntersville.

State environmental officials have sued Colonial Pipeline in hopes of getting more information about the size of a massive gasoline spill in Huntersville 14 months ago.

The suit filed Tuesday at Mecklenburg County Superior Court says Colonial has broken state law by failing to provide updates on the size and extent of the spill.

“Colonial owes it to the people of North Carolina to cooperate with DEQ and be forthcoming with the information required by our statutes, starting with an accurate estimate of how much fuel was released into the environment,” state environmental secretary Elizabeth S. Biser said in a press release. “DEQ is committed to holding Colonial accountable and we now seek a court order directing Colonial to comply with their obligations to clean up and restore the communities impacted by the release.”

Map shows the locations of wells around Colonial Pipeline's Huntersville spill. Orange dots are the 50 wells where gasoline has been recovered.
Colonial Pipeline
A map shows the locations of wells around Colonial Pipeline's Huntersville spill. Orange dots are wells where gasoline has been recovered.

The 60-year-old pipeline runs 5,500 miles from Texas to New Jersey. It's actually two pipelines, a 36-inch pipe for diesel, jet fuel and other fuels, and the 40-inch gasoline pipeline.

The spill happened in August 2020 when an old repair burst in a section of the gasoline pipeline in Mecklenburg County's Oehler Nature Preserve, about two miles east of downtown Huntersville. It was discovered by two teens riding an ATV.

As of Aug. 23, Colonial estimated the leak at about 1.25 million gallons, making it the largest in state history and one of the largest on land in the U.S. That was up from an estimate of 1.2 million gallons in January. But more gasoline is being removed daily, and DEQ says it wants a new estimate as well as a "comprehensive conceptual model" of the contamination.

The state also wants Colonial to submit a corrective action plan, to disclose information about leak detection systems statewide, and to remove and treat chemicals that might contaminate groundwater. Those include PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a group of industrial chemicals found in sampling at the site.

DEQ wants Colonial to do monthly sampling of nearby surface water not only for gasoline, but also for pH, volatile organic compounds, lead and PFAS.

The Huntersville leak was caused by corrosion in a type of pipe repair called a "Type-A collar." The DEQ wants Colonial to provide the locations of similar repairs within North Carolina and to remove or replace them if needed.

A spokesperson said Colonial is still reviewing the suit, and is focused on the cleanup. Here's the full statement:

“Colonial Pipeline is reviewing the state of North Carolina’s legal filing submitted today. We are committed to working with NCDEQ to address the matters identified and will remain on site for as long as it takes to restore the surrounding environment. We have made significant progress to date, and remain focused on recovering product as quickly and safely as possible which is in the best interest of the public. We are proud of our employees who have worked diligently since this incident began to protect the health and safety of the community and the environment.”

More information and documents related to the state investigation of the leak are at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/waste-management/underground-storage-tanks-section/colonial-pipeline-spill-information-huntersville-nc

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.