Colonial Pipeline cuts deal with federal pipeline officials over Huntersville gasoline spill

Colonial Pipeline contractors have installed monitoring and recovery wells near the spill site. This photo was taken from the back yard of Marc Bellet, who lives nearby. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Colonial Pipeline has signed a consent agreement with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which allows the company to avoid federal civil penalties in connection with a 1.2 million gallon gasoline spill in Huntersville —  the largest onshore fuel spill in the U.S. since 1997.

According to the consent agreement, Colonial “neither admits nor denies any allegation or conclusion” laid out in the document. The consent agreement does not prevent the state from assessing fines or penalties, nor does it immunize the company from third-party litigation or criminal penalties.

The consent agreement was first reported by E&E News and independent journalist Rob Jaeger on Substack.

The consent order stems from the Aug. 14, 2020 incident in Huntersville that has extensively contaminated the groundwater and the soil near homes and in the Oehler Nature Preserve. The cleanup continues, including removing gasoline from the groundwater and excavating soil. Colonial says no drinking water wells have been affected, but the company paid to connect some nearby residents to the public water supply out of caution. The company also purchased three homes near the spill “to minimize the inconvenience” of the cleanup activities, Colonial said at the time.

A leak detection system failed to alert the company of the spill, one of a series of failures over the past five years throughout the Southeast.

In Huntersville, Colonial attributed the spill to a broken “Type A” sleeve repair that was installed in 2004. The sleeve was supposed to protect and reinforce a shallow dent in the pipeline, but over time became weakened by corrosion.

The PHMSA determined earlier this year that the problems with the pipeline in Huntersville were likely present throughout Colonial’s entire 5,500-mile route.

The consent order requires Colonial to submit a remedial work plan within 120 days, including inspections and evaluations of the leak detection system, as well as upgrades. The company must also inventory all of its Type A sleeve repairs and determine whether they need replaced.

“In accordance with our safety management practices, Colonial Pipeline began to implement learnings from the Huntersville incident almost immediately after it occurred,” a Colonial spokesman wrote in a prepared statement. “The consent agreement outlines a number of steps that Colonial has agreed to undertake and we appreciate the opportunity to settle this matter following consultation with PHMSA.”

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued a Notice of Continuing Violation to Colonial, requesting more information about the extent and amount of the spill. Colonial has revised its estimates several times, and the 1.2 million gallon figure is likely an underestimate, according to a letter from the company to the Division of Waste Management. A new modeling method shows that “unique geological and hydrogeologic conditions” in the northern part of the spill site shows there is fuel below the water table. That amount has yet to be accounted for in the spill estimates.

To conduct this modeling, the company would need to collect samples in the northern part of the site. But the sampling would need done under “static” conditions, when no other pumping of contaminated groundwater is occurring. In the words, Colonial would have to shut down its recovery wells for several weeks.

Colonial proposes delaying the new sampling so that it can continue to remove the contamination and lessen the risk that it will spread.

There are still questions about how PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, were found in some samples of fire suppressant foam used during an emergency response at the spill site. The manufacture of the suppressant and Colonial say the foam is PFAS-free.

However, stormwater samples taken on Aug. 20 from puddles at the spill and emergency response area  contained several types of the compounds, including PFOSA and others that are found in firefighting foam. All soil and residual water was excavated, removed and shipped to a lined landfill at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, according to a Colonial spokesman.

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