New and alarming figures: Colonial Pipeline spilled 1.2 million gallons of gasoline in Huntersville, 17 times original estimates

This map, included in Colonial Pipeline’s comprehensive site assessment, shows the location of the underground plume of gasoline and petroleum products. Huntersville-Concord Road runs east-west; Asbury-Chapel Road runs north-south. The Oehler Nature Preserve, where the spill occurred, is in the  middle of the map, just north of Huntersville-Concord Road.

The largest gasoline spill in North Carolina history just got bigger.

Colonial Pipeline has released new figures, estimating at least 1.2 million gallons of gasoline spilled from a broken pipe in Huntersville last summer, more than 17 times the original figure. The new numbers are included in a 1,600-page Comprehensive Site Report filed with the NC Department of Environmental Quality yesterday.

In days following the Aug. 14, spill, Colonial estimated the amount at 63,000 gallons, but soon adjusted that figure to 272,000 gallons. In November, it increased that amount to 360,000. State regulators determined that the calculation still “significantly underestimated the volume of gasoline released.” 

On Dec. 9, DEQ sent a letter to the company asking for more precise figures and other information, which was due Dec. 23. Colonial subsequently asked for, and received, an extension until this week.

The spill occurred in the Oehler Nature Preserve, and was discovered by two teenage boys riding ATVs in the area.

Colonial attributed the accident to a broken 42-year-old section of pipe. A preliminary analysis identified a through-wall crack as the source of the release, the company said today, although a final determination of the cause will be made once the technical analyses are complete.

As of Jan. 20, roughly 582,000 gallons of free product and 253,000 gallons of petroleum contact water have been recovered and transported off-site for disposal, according to DEQ.

“The size and scope of this spill requires a rigorous approach to oversight and remediation,” said Division of Waste Management Director Michael Scott in a press release. “We will do a thorough review of the information provided, as it is vital to determine the full extent of the impact in order to guide the cleanup and protection of public health and the environment. DEQ will continue to hold Colonial accountable and oversee their cleanup efforts.”

Colonial has installed 81 groundwater monitoring wells and 50 recovery wells to capture the gasoline, in and near the release location. None of the drinking water wells tested within 1,500 feet of the spill has detected petroleum products above laboratory reporting limits, the company said. But monitoring well data shows groundwater — the source of drinking water for private wells — is contaminated with roughly 20 chemicals, some of them known carcinogens. This includes benzene concentrations are 966 times the state’s maximum contaminant level. Concentrations of toluene exceed three times that level, and another type of hydrocarbon associated with petroleum products, C5-C8 Aliphatics measured 100 times higher than legally allowed.

This chart shows the compounds found in groundwater monitoring wells The term “2L” refers to legally enforceable groundwater standards. Micrograms per liter is also measured as parts per billion. Gross contaminant levels are a different scientific measurement. Colonial notes that four contaminants listed at the bottom of the chart are not from the Aug. 14, 2020, spill, but their origin is unclear.

As a precaution, the company has connected two households to the Charlotte public water system. In October and November, Colonial Pipeline bought three homes near the spill.

In a statement on the Colonial website, the company said it is “committed to protecting public safety, restoring the natural environment, and meeting or exceeding all regulatory requirements. We will continue to work with local partners to remediate Oehler Nature Preserve, and we will expand area partnerships as part of our ongoing Environmental Partners Program. We also remain committed to regaining the trust of our neighbors who have been affected by this event.”

Colonial has estimated it will incur costs of at least $10 million, including $2.6 million to clean up and monitor the contaminated groundwater and soil. DEQ has cited the company for environmental violations, but has yet to assess a penalty. The federal Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has not issued violations related to the spill.

A right-of-way in Huntersville for the Colonial Pipeline. (Photo: Colonial Pipeline)



After unanimous vote, Vance County neighbors 1, debris landfill 0

This aerial photograph shows the proposed site of a Land Clearing and Inert Debris Landfill. Much of the land would be clearcut. Long Creek, a tributary of the Tar River, is in the lower left corner of the frame. (Photo: Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper)

Four months. Hundreds of pages of documents and maps and charts. A dozen hours of testimony, some of it heated.

All of it had boiled down to the Jan. 14 meeting of the Vance County Board of Adjustment, which would rule on whether the residents of Egypt Mountain Road would get stuck with a Land Clearing and Inert Debris landfill in their rural neighborhood.

LCIDs, as they’re known, accept tons upon tons of trees, stumps, brush, unpainted wood and concrete, often from construction sites. K&K Organics, based in Wake Forest, had proposed building such a facility in Kittrell, within a half-mile of 60 homes, on roughly 80 acres of steep, rugged and forested terrain that bottoms out at Long Creek, a tributary to Tabbs Creek and the Tar River. 

The LCID would operate Monday through Friday, nine-and-a-half hours and 120 truck trips per day, for 20 years.

Since September, other than posing direct questions — and making an occasional aside — the board had been pokerfaced about its intent. 

Tom Terrell, the combative attorney for K&K Organics, had cited state statutes that he argued sharply limited what the five-member board could consider in its decision.

The board could not account for residents’ “generalized fears” about what “might happen,” if say, a  semi-truck barreling down the very narrow Egypt Mountain Road, ran off the shoulder or collided with a car. Or if flooding, already common, worsened. Or if runoff from the landfill wound up in the Tar River, a drinking water supply. Or if illegal hazardous material were dumped in the landfill, then seeped into the groundwater and private drinking water wells, unbeknownst to anyone until it was too late.

Nor could the board use their “own knowledge to override the evidence.” The members, who presumably know many a fold and pleat in the landscape of Vance County, had to ignore those memories and experiences.

Terrell’s final Hail Mary pass was to claim that the board could not weigh the LCID’s potential harm to the waterways and aquatic life. Only the public health was at issue, Terrell said, not the environment.

“Public comes from the Latin, ‘publicus’ — people,” he said. “Public only refers to people.” (Technically, publicus is derived from populus, “the people.” Publicus can also refer to belonging to the people, state or community.”)

To separate public health from the environment is not only unwise, but also impossible. Federal and state regulations are based on protecting “human health and the environment.” The NC Department of Health and Human Services has an “Environmental Health” section that oversees private drinking water wells. And from 1989 to 1997, the NC Department of Environmental Quality was known as the Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources.

Jerry Eatman, attorney for the neighbors, offered a pointed rebuttal: “Water is central to public health. To say it doesn’t ignores facts.”

Terrell acknowledged that when “water is degraded it can harm the public health, but that’s not in the evidence.” 

What was in the evidence, though, included likely harm to threatened species of mussels, which are key to filtering pollution and supporting a healthy watershed. “All of us want to protect mussels,” said Terrell. “But there is nowhere in the law that says mussels are a person, and if that mussels are harmed, that would harm people.”

While no one argued that mussels are people, there is an artificial disconnect between the cleanliness of the environment and the health of a community. Recent scientific research has shown people who live near major air pollution sources and contract COVID-19 are more likely to suffer more severe symptoms. Other research has shown that residents who live within three miles of industrialized hog farms are more likely to die sooner and suffer from chronic disease than people who don’t, although the link isn’t entirely clear.

Toxic algae blooms are proliferating in the Chowan River Basin — a drinking water supply for more than  125,000 people— in part, because of manure runoff from poultry farms. Even climate change can be attributed to humans’ refusal to recognize that we’re part of — and rely on — a larger, interconnected ecosystem.

And so now the time came for the board to vote.

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Your right to know: How to find Toxics Release Inventory data for your community


Welcome to the Rabbit Hole, otherwise known as the Toxics Release Inventory. This is a tutorial to accompany a brief story that provides an overview of pollution released into North Carolina’s environment in 2019.

The Toxics Release Inventory, administered by the EPA, collects data from industrial facilities for 770 chemicals, and reports the findings by state, city, county, Zip code, industry and chemical.

There are some data shortcomings: Not all toxic chemicals are included in the TRI and the data is self-reported. Nonetheless, the TRI is a valuable tool for communities to know who’s polluting, which chemicals, and where they’re going.

So grab a cup of coffee or tea (or favorite adult beverage, depending on your mood), and I’ll show you in a series of steps and screenshots how to wrangle basic TRI information. Suggestion from someone who learned the hard way (me): Bookmark the various pages so you can trace your digital breadcrumbs. Sometimes if I haven’t used the TRI for a while, I have to relearn the paths, and that’s a pain.

The homepage of the TRI is straightforward. The EPA has a tutorial in English and Spanish at the bottom of the page, if you prefer video.

To search data for North Carolina, or any state, start at the Where You Live page. This is what it looks like. Notice you can even search smaller geographical areas, including tribal lands. The “Data to Display” includes total releases, land, air, water, population and a risk-screening score. That score is an estimate of potential human health risk from chronic exposures to TRI chemical releases and allows you to compare potential for risk across locations.

I’ve included an inset of the risk-screening score map and info so you know what it looks like. North Carolina ranks in the top third of states and U.S. territories in terms of risk. Not exactly something to brag about in the Chamber of Commerce newsletter.


Let’s burrow farther down into the data to see more information about the major polluters in North Carolina. This is known as a factsheet, and it’s what is shown after you hit “go” on the Where You Live page. It’s a 30,000-foot view of total releases into the environment. The factsheet also lists the Top 5 facilities in terms of pollution releases and disposal.

You can also click on the names of the facilities for more information. Let’s looks at International Paper, the Riegelwood Mill in Columbus County.

The facility report lists the address, map, public contact and compliance information.

Important: The compliance information is not always accurate. The NC Department of Environmental Quality has told me that because of an electronic communications glitch between the EPA and the state, some facilities appear to have violations when they actually don’t. Contact DEQ to doublecheck.

At the top of the facility report page, you’ll notice other areas to explore, such as chemicals, releases and transfers. Clicking on each of these reveals even more information about this paper mill.

“Chemicals” lists the names of those substances that the facility emits or discharges — and, this is an important point — are reportable under the TRI. Many chemicals, PFAS for example, were not reportable in 2019, but they were for 2020. So this time next year we will be able to see those releases.

There is also a column listing whether the chemical has been linked to harmful health effects or cancer.

This screenshot shows 10 of the 38 chemicals and compounds that the paper mill releases.

“Waste management” in the menu bar refers to how the facility disposes of their chemicals: recycling, treating, releasing and energy recovery.

Another interesting factoid on this page is a graph showing “non-production related waste from remedial actions and catastrophic or other one-time events.” That’s a long way of saying waste that was generated from accidents, spills and other ominous events. The graph doesn’t tell us why the accident happened, but it’s a starting point for asking DEQ for records and information.

International Paper reported some type of incident in 1996 that released 4,000 pounds (two tons) of chlorine dioxide into the air. The lime green bar represents 900 pounds of chlorine gas. Definitely not something you want to breathe.


 The releases link is what you might think: Charts and graphs visualizing what has been released. This can show trends: Is the facility releasing more or less over time? Why or why not?

Next we’ll explore transfers. This is a big deal from an environmental justice perspective, and a topic I’m exploring for a series to be published this year.

Transfers are exactly what they sound like: Moving waste from a facility to another. This could be a landfill, an injection well, an incinerating facility, storage, wastewater treatment plan or recycling center (copper and aluminum can be recycled.)

Chemours, for example, ships its PFAS-contaminated wastewater to Arkansas and Texas. And you’ll be shocked — shocked, I say — that most of the communities receiving waste are either low-income or home to people of color. This applies even to household waste. Durham ships its trash to Sampson County, where the landfill is in an environmental justice community.

Back to chemicals: International Paper is opaque about its transfers. We know that a facility in Whiteville took some material but the other listing is “unreported transfer site.” That leads to more questions, either for DEQ or the EPA, starting with “What is this site and why wasn’t it reported?”

On a positive note, clicking on View Report for the Hazmat Emergency Response listing takes you to that facility’s page. At the bottom, census data breaks down demographics within a three-mile radius of the Hazmat site. Another note of caution: Three miles can be instructive, but within that radius, the most vulnerable people could live closer to the site. When I work on stories like this, I actually visit the area to witness what numbers can only hint at.

OK, this is a lot to absorb, so I’ll finish with one last section.

Release reports can be found at this link. I’ve found this section to be the most unwieldy. You can browse by facility, federal facility, such as military bases; chemical and industry. You can also search by state or Zip code. It’s a lot, I know. Hang on, we’re almost there.

Let’s search for all 762 facilities reporting to the TRI in North Carolina. Click on Facility, and choose North Carolina for the Geographic Location. You can also choose the year. Then click Generate Report.

And this gawd-awful spreadsheet is what you get. Here’s just a portion of it, sorted alphabetically, which is useful if you’re looking for a particular facility.


You can also sort by amount with the up and down arrows at the top of each column. And if you’re really motivated, you can also export this to Excel or Google Sheets and do your own analysis.

Here’s what the spreadsheet looks like sorted by release amount. Painful, I know. And clicking on each facility takes you a page with more information, etc. etc. I told you it was a rabbit hole.

If you want more guidance or information about the TRI, I’m happy to share whatever I know ([email protected] or @lisasorg on Twitter.) There are more ways to drill down and use other parts of the EPA’s website (and DEQ’s) to get information. All of this information is public, and the trick is viewing the data with a critical and patient eye. Data rarely answers all of your questions; instead it leads to more questions.





At least 14 sites at Camp Lejeune are likely to be contaminated with PFAS

Marksmanship training, Camp Lejeune, June 27, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ashley Gomez)

Like most military bases, Camp Lejeune is a toxic mess.

It is one of 130 current or former military installations on the EPA’s Superfund list that are contaminated with dozens, if not hundreds of pollutants. That list now includes perfluorinated compounds — PFAS.

According to Camp Lejeune’s most recent five-year Superfund review, conducted by the EPA, there are at least 14 sites on base that are likely to have PFAS contamination. These include a firefighting training pit where groundwater levels have been detected at 500 times the EPA’s health advisory goal for drinking water.

However, it could be at least five years — Dec. 31, 2025 — before the Defense Department plans to have completed its evaluation of risks and exposures presented by PFAS contamination. A cleanup will likely take decades.

The sources of the PFAS are varied: industrial wastewater sludge, fire stations, the site of an Osprey helicopter crash, where PFAS-contaminated firefighting foam was used; the Camp Geiger Dump, which is near a former trailer park. The Department of Defense says no PFAS have been detected in drinking water above regulatory guidelines.

(In a separate issue, the EPA last week denied a petition filed by several citizens’ groups, including four in North Carolina, to require Chemours to fund independent scientific testing of 54 types of PFAS — a fraction of the 5,000-plus that are either in use, or have been, but phased out. The EPA responded that the groups did not provide “the facts necessary” that information and testing so far are insufficient.)

Here are some numbers about the PFAS contamination on base:

14 — Minimum number of sites at Camp Lejeune where there have been potential PFAS releases
7 — Minimum number of sites contaminated by firefighting foam that contained PFAS
7 — Minimum number of sites where PFAS-contaminated wastewater and sludge was dumped
70 parts per trillion — Maximum concentration of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, according to the EPA’s health advisory goal. North Carolina
has adopted that goal, but other states, like New Hampshire and New Jersey, have far stricter and enforceable
standards, 12-15 ppt
35,100 ppt — Maximum concentrations of PFOS in groundwater downhill from a the Piney Green Road Firefighting Training Pit at Camp Lejeune
3,460 ppt — Maximum concentrations of PFOA in the same area
2.6 — Number of acres encompassed by the Piney Green Road pit
47 — Number of acres at an amphibious vehicle maintenance facility, where a fire occurred, and firefighting foam was used
100 — Number of acres encompassed by the Industrial Area Fly Ash Dump; PFAS-contaminated wastewater might have been deposited there

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