Report: How a Gas Company Grossly Underestimated One of the Biggest Pipeline Spills in U.S. History

New RepublicHow a Gas Company Grossly Underestimated One of the Biggest Pipeline Spills in U.S. History. After the disaster in Huntersville, Colonial Pipeline now holds the record for largest gas spill in both North and South Carolina. Thanks to its polished P.R. team, you likely have no clue.

Last year, on August 14, two teenagers riding their ATVs through the woods in Huntersville, North Carolina, noticed a strange liquid bubbling from the earth. They stopped to take a look. The pair, who soon informed their local fire department, had no clue of the scale of the disaster they were looking at. And thanks to the craftiness of Colonial Pipeline, the rest of the country wouldn’t, either.

The Colonial Pipeline system, described by a former CEO as a “superhighway of energy,” consists of two parallel pipelines that stretch a combined 5,500 miles, running through 12 southeastern states carrying gas from Houston to New Jersey. We now know the spill started sometime in early August 2020, caused by a crack in one of the pipes, and that the flow of gas was cut off shortly after the local fire department called it in. At first, the company said only around 63,000 gallons of gasoline had spilled, according to local news reports from WSOC. Then, as August turned to September, the number grew to 273,000. In November, as the company assured Huntersville residents that it was “deeply committed to keeping them informed throughout the process,” the number increased again, this time stopping in the neighborhood of 360,000 gallons.

By then, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which was overseeing the cleanup process, released a statement that found that Colonial “has significantly underestimated the volume of gasoline” spilled into the natural preserve. Less than a week later, a Colonial spokesperson admitted to WFAE that the company in fact had no clue how much gas had been pouring from its pipe and that it would, “release a number when we believe it’s accurate and verified through multiple models.”

In late January, some five months after those two teenagers happened upon the burst pipeline, the spill’s true scope was finally released in a Comprehensive Site Assessment Report filed by the company with DEQ: 1.2 million gallons.  Instantaneously, it became one of the largest nontanker spills in modern American history. And even with the 1,600 pages of documentation, there was still a great deal of missing information. Last week, the DEQ sent Colonial a Notice of Continuing Violation, finding that the company had not adequately measured or reported the levels of vapor, soil, and air pollution from the site, ordering it to update its assessment by the end of April, and continue testing the private resident wells. The question that now hovers over this crisis is how Colonial managed to obscure, for this long, the scope of what happened in the backyard of North Carolina’s most populous city.

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