Colonial Pipeline and Federal Regulators Reach Settlement In Historic NC Gas Spill

Company behind 1.2M+ gallon gasoline spill in Huntersville, NC must adhere to laundry list of "corrective measures" to avoid fines, litigation

Colonial Pipeline has reached an agreement with Federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration regarding their 1.2M gallon (and growing) gasoline leak in the Oehler Nature Preserve near Huntersville, NC in August of 2020. The agreement gives Colonial a roadmap to absolution with a laundry list of corrective measures demanded by PHMSA—but it also allows the company to avoid and monetary fines or further litigation on the matter, should they comply. PHMSA had recently released a report condemning the entire 5,500 mile pipeline system as a threat to public and environmental safety—saying that conditions exist for a catastrophic leak, such as the one in Huntersville, throughout the system. PHMSA also took aim at Colonial’s leak detection methods, saying their inadequacy exacerbated the Huntersville spill, and likely several others in Colonial’s history.

The settlement—negotiated behind closed doors in June—specifically mentions that Colonial isn’t guilty, or necessarily innocent, of any allegations the agency brought forth. The document states: “This Agreement does not constitute a finding of violation of any federal law or regulation and may not be used in any civil proceeding of any kind as evidence or proof of any fact, fault or liability, or as evidence of a violation of any law, rule, regulation, or requirement, except in a proceeding to enforce the provisions of this Agreement or in future PHMSA enforcement actions. [Colonial Pipeline] neither admits nor denies any allegation or conclusion in the Notice or this Agreement and Order, but agrees, for purposes of this Agreement and Order, to address the alleged risk condition by completing the terms of this Agreement.”

Furthermore, the settlement requires Colonial to formulate a “Work Plan” with corrective measures within 120 days from the signing of the agreement. The measures include Colonial fully re-evaluating their leak detection system, and then, based on the findings, determine improvements. The same is being demanded for Colonial’s Right-Of-Way inspections and the methods involved. Maybe the most meticulous measure PHMSA is requiring of Colonial Pipeline is a full, descriptive history of every “Type-A” sleeve repair made to the system. Colonial determined the Huntersville spill was caused by a crack that formed at the site of the same type of repair that was made in 2004. Colonial themselves never detected the leak (which could have gone for months), two teenagers riding ATV’s near the site smelled the gas and alerted authorities.

As for the leak itself, Colonial recently requested from North Carolina state regulators at the NC Department of Environmental Quality an indefinite extension on providing new total estimates on the volume of the spill, saying creating conditions to do so would mean shutting down cleanup procedures for possibly weeks. In that same letter to NC DEQ, a third party engineering firm hired by Colonial backed that assessment, and further added that the models needed to provide updated predictions are open to interpretation and may not even be accurate in a best case scenario. The latest update from Colonial per their website indicated the company will have crossed their latest 1.2M gallon estimate this week.

This Agreement, including all elements of the incorporated Work Plan, is subject to all enforcement authorities available to PHMSA” the settlement continues, “including administrative civil penalties[…] and referral of the case to the Attorney General for judicial enforcement, if PHMSA determines that Respondent is not complying with the terms of this Agreement in accordance with determinations made by the Director”.

This agreement does not affect any investigation being carried out by the NCDEQ, which is still ongoing. Stay tuned to MCSC Network for the latest in this story.

You can view the agreement here.