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Colonial Pipeline would pay $4.75 million in fines, according to proposed consent order with DEQ

The pipeline traveled directly beneath the property recently purchased by Colonial (Map: DEQ reports)

Colonial Pipeline will pay a $4.75 million fine in connection with a massive gasoline spill in in 2020 in Huntersville, according to a proposed consent order between the company and the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The document was filed in Mecklenburg Superior Court, where a judge would have to approve the order. The hearing is scheduled for July 26.

It’s been nearly two years — on Aug. 14, 2020 — since two teenage boys saw gasoline gurgling from the ground in the Oehler Nature Preserve. A segment of the Colonial Pipeline had broken, spilling at least 1.3 million gallons of gasoline into the environment. It was the largest onshore spill since the early 1990s. The Huntersville incident marked the 32nd Colonial spill in North Carolina since 2000.

Within 30 days of the judge’s approval, Colonial must provide DEQ with an updated estimate of the volume of gasoline released from the pipeline. So far, the company has claimed that it’s been unable to provide a more precise figure because it would require shutting down part of the groundwater cleanup system to do so.

Meanwhile, each quarter Colonial must also sample for five types of toxic PFAS — perfluorinated compounds — in several groundwater wells: PFBA, PFOSA, Nafion Byproduct 2, PFOS and PFOA. The latter two compounds are of particular interest because the EPA recently announced new stringent health advisory goals for drinking water.

Many residents near the spill are on well water, although the company has emphasized that no petroleum products have been detected in drinking water wells. However, Colonial has not tested those wells for PFAS. Colonial connected a few households that are closest to the spill to public water. It has also purchased three homes and an additional 25.8 acres near the spill site for nearly $1.7 million.

DEQ and Colonial have disputed the presence and origin of PFAS after the incident. As part of its emergency response, Colonial Pipeline used a fire suppressant known as F-500 encapsulate to prevent vapors from the gasoline from igniting.

At the time of the accident, “DEQ was told [by Colonial] that the encapsulate used was PFAS-free,” agency spokeswoman Laura Leonard told Policy Watch in a story published last year.

Nonetheless, DEQ asked Colonial to test for PFAS in the suppressant because agency staff were aware of the potential for contamination based on other investigations, as well as the magnitude of the spill, Leonard said. “Out of an abundance of caution, DEQ collected — and directed Colonial to collect— samples of the encapsulate.”

Colonial’s test results of the “mixed” product — fire truck water and the F-500 — showed high levels of PFOSA: 4,810 ppt. Likewise, DEQ’s sampling showed high levels of PFOSA: 5,620 ppt. The water in the fire truck contained levels of the compounds below 1 ppt. It’s possible that residue from the hose or firefighting equipment contained PFAS; a type of firefighting foam, known as AFFF, contains high levels of the compounds.

There were 17 types of PFAS found in the North Prong of Clark Creek, according to Colonial sampling taken three days after the spill. Detectable concentrations ranged from less than 1 part per trillion for PFHpA to 14.9 ppt for PFOSA.  Because PFAS are so widespread in the environment, there could be many sources of the contamination, not necessarily the Colonial spill.

The order also requires Colonial to update its estimate of contaminated soil and assess the amount of gasoline that remains in the bedrock. Gasoline has been found within 11 acres at and near the site. The company must also conduct additional surface water monitoring and implement a Corrective Action Plan.

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Colonial Pipeline would pay $4.75 million in fines, according to proposed consent order with DEQ