After Huntersville gasoline spill investigation, feds say Colonial Pipeline’s entire 5,500-mile route could pose public safety, environmental risks

The Colonial Pipeline system runs 5,500 miles from Houston, Texas, to Linden, N.J. Last August, the largest onshore gasoline spill in the U.S. since 1997 occurred in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte. (Map: Colonial)

Federal investigators have warned Colonial Pipeline that because of poor operational procedures, the company’s entire 5,500-mile pipeline could jeopardize public safety, property or the environment.

A 1.2 million-gallon gasoline spill in Huntersville, which occurred last summer, prompted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to investigate Colonial’s operation and maintenance systems. Problems identified in the Huntersville spill potentially exist throughout the Colonial Pipeline system, the PHMSA wrote.

In the nine-page Notice of Proposed Safety Order issued March 29, the PHMSA warned Colonial that it must “take measures” to reduce the potential risk.

“The conditions that led to the failure potentially exist throughout the Colonial Pipeline System. Further Colonial’s inability to effectively detect and respond to this release, as well as other past releases, has potentially exacerbated the impacts of this and numerous other failures over the operational history of colonial’s entire system.  … it appears that the continued operation of the Colonial Pipeline system without corrective measures would pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property or the environment.”

E&E News published details of the report yesterday.

A Colonial Pipeline spokesman provided a statement to Policy Watch:
“We are reviewing this notice and will respond as requested by PHMSA … Colonial began seeking to implement learnings from the Huntersville incident almost immediately after it occurred. This included identifying sections of pipe with potentially similar conditions and excavating, evaluating and in some cases enhancing those pipe segments. Colonial also has leak detection systems currently in place on each of its pipelines that meet, and in some cases exceed, current regulatory requirements. We will continue to learn from this event and apply those lessons learned to our overall operations.”

Colonial Pipeline starts near Houston, Texas, and runs northeast through several Southern and mid-Atlantic states, including North Carolina, before ending in New Jersey. Branches of the pipeline also extend into Tennessee. The system delivers an average of 100 million gallons of liquid petroleum products, including gasoline and jet fuel, each day.

Federal investigators found that corrosion caused a crack in the pipeline in Huntersville. In turn, gasoline escaped from the breach, even though the  pressure was low: just 183 pounds per square in gauge, far below the maximum operating pressure of 673 pounds per square in gauge. Colonial uses an advanced automatic leak detection system on some positions of its pipeline, but not on Line 1, which runs though Huntersville.

The Huntersville spill, the largest onshore accident of its type in U.S. history since 1997, is only one of several accidents that have occurred in the last five years. The federal investigation noted that cracks and corrosion in the pipeline, as well as inadequate repair, caused those spills, ranging from 1,000 gallons to 309,000 gallons.

The PHMSA told Colonial that within 90 days it must submit a written plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the leak detection system throughout the 5,500-mile route. The company then must recommend how to fix the weaknesses in that system. Similar analyses are required for pipeline repairs, inspections, and considerations for “High Consequence Areas,” which are near neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and other highly populated areas.

The PHMSA must approve Colonial’s plan and its proposed timeline to do the work.

Policy Watch reported yesterday on questions about how toxic perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — wound up at the Huntersville gasoline spill. Colonial said the fire suppressant it used contained no PFAS, and that cross-contamination from an unknown source is likely responsible. The company excavated soil where the suppressant was sprayed and transported it to a lined landfill at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. State environmental regulators have asked Colonial for more data to support their contention no PFAS entered the environment.

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