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Regulators urged to tighten permit for Huntersville pipeline cleanup

Aerial view of the Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill in Huntersville.
Mike Harvey
Aerial view of the Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill in Huntersville during cleanup in 2021.

Residents, public officials and environmental groups urged state regulators in Huntersville Thursday night to tighten requirements for a water-quality permit that Colonial Pipeline needs to speed cleanup of a massive gasoline spill two and a half years ago.

The incident happened in August 2020, when a previous repair on the 40-inch pipeline failed, sending about 2 million gallons of gasoline into the soil. That makes it the nation's largest-ever gasoline pipeline spill on land, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Workers are still recovering gasoline from wells at the site in the Oehler Nature Preserve about two miles east of downtown Huntersville.

Colonial Pipeline has been storing contaminated groundwater in tanks and then trucking it elsewhere. Now the company wants to build a water treatment plant at the site, and to release treated water into the nearby North Prong Clarke Creek, which is part of the Yadkin River watershed.

Most of the 15 speakers at the hearing said the draft permit for the project isn't strict enough on what can be released into the creek.

"This is the best option we have now to clean this up as quickly and as cost effectively as possible, but we just want to make sure that DEQ maintains very stringent standards," said Edgar Miller, the Yadkin Riverkeeper.

In particular, the riverkeeper group is concerned that the permit would allow Colonial to release excessive amounts of cancer-causing benzene and fails to require testing for PFAS, so-called forever chemicals that have been found at the site.

Alisia Bergsman lives near the creek, just north of the pipeline, and listed those substances among her concerns.

"The CDC has identified human exposure to PFAS substances as a public health concern. If these improvements are not made, the permit should not be issued," Bergsman said.

Skip Hudspeth of Huntersville said it's up to the DEQ to protect the area:

"Colonial can't be trusted. And it's also in DEQ's lap to really step up and ensure that this cleanup is managed in a way that takes care of the people in the neighborhoods and takes care of the wildlife in the streams," Hudspeth said.

Mecklenburg County, which owns the nature preserve, says the North Prong Clarke Creek may be home to a fish called the Carolina darter, a species the state considers to be of "special concern."

NCDEQ said Colonial considered various options before proposing on-site treatment. Sending wastewater into the county water treatment system was ruled out, because it's not allowed by county ordinance. Spraying it on land also was deemed unfeasible.

DEQ said continuing to haul water away in trucks would require 115 tanker trucks operating 24 hours a day indefinitely, which would disrupt the area and cost $596 million. Treating and discharging water at the site would cost $23 million.

Colonial Pipeline's Meg Blackwood said at the hearing that onsite water treatment is the best option as the company tries to speed up removal through dozens of wells on the site.

"Our proposal allows us to safely and efficiently manage the water in the most environmentally responsible manner, with the least impact to our neighbors," Blackwood said.

Public comments close at 5 p.m. Friday. NCDEQ has until June 14 to decide whether to grant the permit.

More information is on the NCDEQ website.

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