Impacts of 2020 Colonial Pipeline Rupture Continue to Grow
Feature image of a 2016 Colonial Pipeline Spill. Credit: EPA
The Colonial Pipeline is the largest pipeline system for refined oil products in the U.S. In August 2020, the pipeline ruptured, spilling more than 1.2 million gallons of gasoline—an amount at least 18 times greater than what Colonial Pipeline Co. had originally reported nine months ago.
Back in August 2020, two teenage boys were riding their all-terrain vehicles in the 142-acre Oehler Nature Preserve, not far from suburban subdivisions in the Charlotte, North Carolina suburb of Huntersville. To their surprise, they encountered a pool of gasoline, which they reported to authorities. It turned out that they had discovered the largest refined petroleum pipeline rupture in the United States since 2000. The pipeline, which is 42 years old, and buried underground, may have been leaking for days, or even weeks, before the product reached the surface. Over the past 8 months, estimates on the amount of gasoline that leaked from the Colonial Pipeline have steadily increased to close to 1.2 million gallons, and has contaminated soil and groundwater in the immediate area. FracTracker has taken a look at the story, and provided an interactive map to help illustrate this disaster.
2020 Colonial Pipeline Spill Interactive Map
This interactive map looks at the ecological impacts of the 2020 Colonial Pipeline spill in North Carolina’s Oehler Nature Preserve. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click and zoom on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
Scope of Colonial’s service area
According to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) document from 2013, Colonial owns and operates approximately 5,500 miles of large-diameter pipelines that carry a range of petroleum products. Their service area extends from Houston, Texas, to Linden, New Jersey at the New York harbor. They are the largest refined petroleum products system in the US—and in the world, transporting more than 104,000,000 gallons (2,500,000 barrels) of gasoline, heating oil, and aviation fuel daily. They carry 45 percent of the gasoline and jet fuel for the eastern United States.
Estimates of spill grows over time
By far, the spill last August was the largest single gasoline spill, nationwide, since 2000. For comparison, between 2000 and 2019, the amount of gasoline spillage by all companies—in 2571 spills—was 14.8 million gallons. During that period of time, Colonial was responsible for 272 of those spills, with a loss of 920,628 gallons. The cost of clean-up of spills incurred by Colonial was $168.8 million.
According to NC Policy Watch, over time, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has collected a mere $448,000 from Colonial for its spills. This is despite a civil penalty of $34 million assessed to Colonial by EPA, as well as $606,700 in fines that FERC has assessed toward Colonial since 1993.
In August 2020, shortly after the spill was discovered, Colonial estimated the fuel loss to be 63,000 gallons from the ruptured pipeline. By September, the North Carolina Department of Environmental quality Secretary Michael Regan, upped that number to 273,000 gallons. In November 2020, the spill was revised to 354,060 gallons. By January, 2021, regulators revised that number even further to almost 1.2 million gallons—18 times greater than what Colonial had originally reported.
On February 24, 2021, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) issued a Notice of Continuing Violation to Colonial, critical of the company’s insufficiencies in their Comprehensive Site Assessment that made determining the full impact of the spill.
By April 12th, 2021 Colonial asserted that it had recovered 24,512 barrels (1,029,504 gallons) of what they think were 28,571 barrels (1.2 million gallons) of fuel that leaked on to the site. They say that the volume recovered is approximately 85% of what was spilled and consider that the remediation plan is “working as designed.” To aid in the remediation process, Colonial has also purchased three properties across the road from the spill site. They are using a combination of 56 recovery wells and 84 monitoring wells—in 140 in total, and expect to remain on the site “for years” as its wells continue to withdraw gasoline.
And on April 19, 2021, Colonial indicated that the spill estimate of 1.2 million gallons may be revised upward, yet again because of additional fuel found in deeper pockets in the soil, although they have not yet provided value. Media have speculated that the number may be considerably higher than the 1.2 million gallons. Already, gasoline has been detected through monitoring more than 550 feet from the leak site.
Despite receiving deadlines from NCDEQ about providing estimates for the spill by the end of April, Colonial did not meet that goal. Colonial did submit a 1640-page document on April 26, 2021 that many other parameters (including the amount of product that had recovered), but no estimates of the spill beyond the 1.2 million gallons they reported according to a March 4, 2021 calculation.
Consequently, on May 5, 2021, NCDEQ issued an additional Notice of Continuing Violation to Colonial. This time, Colonial is required to provide revised estimates of the total volume spilled, by May 28, 2021.
Huntersville mayor John Anarella indicated in an interview on WSOC-TV that that Colonial’s monitoring system didn’t even register the leak, which may have gone undetected for days, if not weeks. In fact, leak detection systems for pipelines in rural areas will not even become required by law until 2025. Nor has the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) set standards for what a detection system would entail.
Hazardous components of gasoline and their environmental impacts
Studies on the site by the NCDEQ have already shown that the gasoline spill released several toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene (collectively known as BTEX) that have been found in, and exceed, groundwater standards, but it’s not clear whether they will reach drinking water wells. According to Science Alert, “Acute (short-term) exposure to gasoline and its components benzene, toluene and xylenes has been associated with skin and sensory irritation, central nervous system-CNS problems (tiredness, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination) and effects on the respiratory system (eye and nose irritation). On top of skin, sensory and CNS problems, prolonged exposure to these compounds can also affect the kidney, liver and blood systems.”
In addition, in the effort to minimize and encapsulate flammable vapors at the spill, the response team seemed to have used a compound that contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment, and have been associated with liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer. Tests of 39 PFAS chemicals taken on site show levels on the site that are hundreds, and even thousands of times greater than state and federal drinking water standards. Despite these lab samples, Colonial has asserted to NCDEQ that the compound they used was PFAS-free.
One transportation model of how gasoline moves in the soil after a spill indicated that while some MBTE chemicals found in gasoline can travel through the soil subsequent to a spill, BTEX chemicals both adsorb on to soil particles but also travel in groundwater (Abstract of Geophysical Union Conference, Transactions (EOS), 80 (17), 1999). BTEX is a substantial concern in the Colonial case, but MBTE is not. MBTE was phased out as a gasoline component in the US in the late 2000s and replaced by ethanol, although the US continues to export the additive to Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela. Soil remediation for BTEX can occur through physical removal, and/or using bioremediation, but its movement through groundwater must be monitored closely.
Colonial issued an update on the spill clean-up process on April 16, 2021. They called their progress in cleaning up the contamination “significant” and reported that they were working with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, as well as Mecklenburg County officials, to continue the mitigation work. As of January, 2021, they started mapping the boundaries of the area to which the fuel had migrated, using a process called Optical Image Profiling. This technology utilizes UV light, as well as subsurface probes to assess levels of fuel in the ground. Preliminary results have showed that the gasoline has not migrated laterally very far from the spill, but that it is being found in some locations at greater depths than anticipated. Colonial is monitoring drinking water wells within 1500 feet of the spill.
The 42-year-old pipeline was until recently, hidden in plain sight for many residents. Until the pipe ruptured, not all knew that this sizeable pipeline ran right through their community. Colonial is testing water wells regularly, and says that no contamination has been detected in drinking water yet. Nonetheless, some residents in the area are choosing to drink bottled water rather than take the chance that they consume contaminated groundwater from the private wells on their property. Other residents have decided to sell their properties to avoid health risks from the spill.
For the time being, the drinking water supply of the City of Charlotte, NC does not appear to be at risk. Charlotte’s water is drawn from two reservoirs that are 8 and 11 miles away—Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake, respectively. Surface water in the vicinity of the spill at Oehler Nature Preserve flows into the South and North Prongs of Clark Creek—both of which are part of the Rocky Watershed. The water supply of the City of Charlotte, on the other hand, is within the Upper Catawba watershed. The wetlands and watershed boundaries can be explored on the interactive map we have included.
Recent twists to the story
On May 7, 2021, the Colonial Pipeline was shut down, but not due to regulatory intervention. Rather, a cyberattack halted all operations of the 5,500-mile-long pipeline system. This led to a brief panic in the Southeast US about gasoline shortages. The cyberattack was launched by the group DarkSide, who released ransomware into Colonial’s system, necessitating payment in order for the company to regain control. While some might speculate about political motivations for the attack, DarkSide, in fact, apologized for the disruption created by the attack. They maintained that they are an apolitical organization, with a single goal of making money. The New York Times estimated that the ransom money was about $5 million.
Although the system was back online within a week, tightening up security has not been without issues. On May 18, for example, the system experienced communications disruptions, but the company denied that this was due to more issues with hackers.
The Take Away
As the clean-up has continued, the estimates have continued to increase about the amount of fuel spilled from the Colonial Pipeline rupture. Below-ground clean-up of petroleum distillates is a notoriously difficult task, which may impact the residents and environment of the area for an indeterminate time in the future.
References & Where to Learn More
Giant N.C. spill shows gaps in pipeline safety
Size of pipeline gasoline spill again underestimated in Huntersville
Eight months later, Colonial Pipeline spill continuing to impact Huntersville residents
N.C. pipeline caused largest U.S. gasoline spill, records say
- Charlotte, NC water supply. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from information collected online.
- Colonial Pipeline. Data downloaded from US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and refined by FracTracker to alignment with satellite imagery.
- Oehler Nature Preserve. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from boundary provided on Google Maps.
- Volume of spill, modeled at 1-foot-depth. Layer created by FracTracker Alliance, 22 April 2021. Based on 1.2 million gallon spill by Colonial Pipeline onto Oehler Nature Preserve, this area represents the size of the spill–3.4 acres, if the fuel were a foot deep. 1.1 million gallons would fill just under two Olympic-sized swimming pools.
- Approximate site of spill. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from media reports.
- Homes bought out by Colonial following spill. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from news article.
- National Wetlands Inventory and watershed boundaries (Rocky and Upper Catawba watersheds). Downloaded by FracTracker Alliance from US Fish and Wildlife Service wetland mapper site.
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