Mar 21, 2023 - Climate

Millions of gallons of gasoline spilled from a pipeline in the Charlotte area, and it’s still being cleaned up

The site where the Colonial Pipeline spill occurred. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

Almost three years after millions of gallons of gasoline leaked from an oil pipeline in Huntersville, officials are still trying to figure out how to clean it up safely.

Catch up quick: Two teenagers riding ATVs in the Oehler Nature Preserve discovered the leak. Colonial Pipeline has said it began 18 days before that.

  • Originally, officials said the spill discovered in August 2020 was 63,000 gallons. But last July, the company disclosed that figure was approximately 2 million gallons — more than 30 times the original estimate.
  • As of the end of 2022, Colonial has recovered 85% of the gasoline, according to company spokesperson David Conti.

Why it matters: An environmental catastrophe took place in our backyard, and it has mostly flown under the radar. With the revised estimates, it’s the largest gasoline leak from a pipeline spill in the U.S. on record, per E&E News.

  • The Colonial Pipeline stretches from Texas to New York, supplying fuel for much of the East Coast. Incidents like the Huntersville spill reveal the risks fossil fuel infrastructure pose.
  • The spill hasn’t galvanized public attention the way other environmental disasters have.

Driving the news: Colonial Pipeline is asking the state for permission to build a plant to treat contaminated groundwater from the spill and release it into a nearby creek, which is part of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River basin and flows into the Rocky River.

  • The move raises concern among community members and environmental advocates about water quality, and which standards will be used to measure pollutants in the water that is released.
  • The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulator, held a hearing on the company’s permit for the facility on Thursday.

What they’re saying: Colonial says the facility is critical to its efforts to prevent contaminated groundwater from spreading. It will bring hundreds of gallons of water to the surface per minute to be treated, Meg Blackwood, director of right-of-way, land management and public affairs for Colonial Pipeline, said at the hearing.

“Our proposal allows us to safely and efficiently manage the water in the most environmentally responsible manner with the least impact to our neighbors,” she said. Blackwood says continuous testing of water before it is discharged into the creek will be “stringent.”

Yes, but: The Yadkin Riverkeeper and Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, are concerned about the impacts of pollution from the discharge.

  • They pressed the state to require lower levels of pollutants in the water. They also want NCDEQ to require Colonial disclose if harmful PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are present in the discharged water, and apply appropriate limits if necessary.
  • For instance, Yadkin Riverkeeper Edgar Miller tells Axios that the limit for benzene, a carcinogen in gasoline, is higher in the state’s draft permit than the EPA’s recommended technology-based standard for benzene in the waterway, the North Prong Clark Creek.

The other side: The restrictions set in the permit are state water quality standards approved by the EPA, says Julie Grzyb, deputy director of the Division of Water Resources with NCDEQ.

  • She said in this case, there is not an industry-specific federal standard, like there would be for a chemical facility, for example. The state has the ability to set a stricter limit based on what the best available technology can achieve.
  • In a follow-up email, NCDEQ spokeswoman Anna Gurney said the division is reviewing groundwater well data to determine whether PFAS sampling should be added to the permit.

The big picture: Pipeline safety is regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a federal agency. But the spill exposed weaknesses in the detection of spills, E&E News reported.

  • State Sen. Natasha Marcus, who represents the area, filed a bill that would give NCDEQ the authority to study and provide recommendations to the General Assembly on the condition, safety and environmental impact of pipelines carrying petroleum products through the state.
  • Marcus tells Axios that Colonial hasn’t been communicating many updates to residents who live near the spill site. “They feel like they’ve been left in the dark a lot,” she says.

Context: In July, a Mecklenburg County judge approved a state order that fined Colonial nearly $5 million and required it to take remedial actions including conducting quarterly sampling for PFAS and submitting a corrective action plan.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman speaks at the NCDEQ hearing. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

But many say that isn’t enough to compensate for the harm the spill caused.

  • “(This community) will never be made whole even if every last bit of this toxin was extracted, which I think no one believes can ever happen,” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman said at the hearing.

Impacts: Joanne Brown Miller can still picture her daughters picking as many daffodils as they could carry in the field on her family’s farm. Brown Miller, 79, left the farm that has been in her family for over 100 years after the spill, though it wasn’t the only factor in her decision.

  • She had hoped to return, but now she likely never will. She doesn’t know if the water in the ground underneath where those flowers grow is contaminated.
  • The family’s farm is next to the nature preserve, and she says the company switched neighbors from well water over to city water in what was described as a precaution. But Brown Miller said she doesn’t trust anyone in power to tell the truth about the situation.
  • “There’s that unknowing, and not really knowing what else this could to you or to your family,” she says.

What’s next: NCDEQ will make a decision on the facility’s permit by June 14. If approved, it would be valid for up to five years.

  • Colonial would be required to test the water using third-party labs and submit that data to the state, per Grzyb.
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