Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill in Huntersville was bigger — much bigger — than originally thought

The Colonial Pipeline spill on Aug. 14 released nearly five times more gasoline than previously estimated — at least 272,580 gallons, a number that could rise as the clean up in Huntersville continues.

On the date of the spill, Colonial was required to immediately notify state and federal authorities with an estimated amount of gasoline spill — 63,000 gallons.

Only about half of the gasoline has been recovered, according to Colonial, which included the information in a 30-day report to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The spill occurred along Huntersville-Concord Road in the Oehler Nature Preserve. Two teenagers riding ATVs in the area spotted liquid bubbling from the ground and notified a friend of the family, who is a firefighter. In turn, the firefighter informed Colonial.

Colonial posted on its website that it has not detected petroleum or its byproducts in any residential wells. The company has offered to connect residents within the 1,500-foot radius of the spill to the public water system and to pay for the costs associated with doing so, plus $1,000 toward future water bills.

The spill of at least 272,000 gallons of gasoline occurred in the Oehler Nature Preserve, which is near many neighborhoods in Huntersville.

“Homeowners who have been offered the opportunity to connect to public water are free to decline the offer, and if they do so, Colonial will continue to monitor and test their water wells, at no cost to the homeowners, for the foreseeable future,” the company wrote.

However, one homeowner, Shannon Ward, told the Huntersville Town Board last week that she felt pressured by Colonial representatives to sign the contract. She wanted to consult with an attorney before signing.

Ward provided the contract to Policy Watch, which in turn asked several attorneys to review it. Among the legal concerns was the omission of any reference to environmental laws governing the clean up. For example, private wells must be closed under provisions of Well Abandonment and Certification rules; the contract fails to mention them.

Another clause prevents the property owner from suing Colonial for any harm it caused during the work. Nor does the agreement specify the landowners’ rights to receive any records related to the activities conducted on their property.

Colonial, which has operated in North Carolina since the late 1950s, has a subpar accident record in North Carolina. The NC Department of Environmental Quality said at a public meeting that there have been 26 reported incidents. These include releases in 1995, 2000 and 2015 in Kannapolis, and another in Lexington in 2013.

However, what isn’t known is the number of unreported spills. According to federal court documents, a 500-gallon spill that occurred near a booster station in Lexington, NC in April 2013. During the cleanup, contractors found evidence of previous spills dating to at least 1989, but there were no records of the releases.

Similarly, in that case, filed by Wallace & Graham in Salisbury, Colonial asked nearby property owners to sign contracts in order to be connected to a public water system. Colonial also bought properties near some of the affected neighbors “without explaining the reason and this has caused concerns about contamination,” the documents read. On at least one property, after Colonial bought it, the company tore down the home.

Contamination from the 2013 spill was found in monitoring wells and groundwater as late as March 2019. According to court documents, a report from late 2019 said an environmental assessment was flawed because of a lack of adequate deep wells to understand the spread of benzene and other contamination. The underground plume has yet to be fully delineated.

The judge ruled that while the plaintiffs successfully alleged their properties had been damaged by the 2013 spill, there was no evidence of  “gross negligence,” and the statute of limitations on the earlier spills had lapsed.

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