Colonial Pipeline’s Year Just Got a Little Worse (Couldn’t Have Happened to Nicer Company)

Colonial Pipeline’s Year Just Got a Little Worse (Couldn’t Have Happened to Nicer Company)
Photo: Chris Carlson, AP

More than a year after the discovery of what’s the largest gasoline spill in the U.S. in decades, the owners of a massive pipeline are being taken to court. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the Colonial Pipeline, which owns the eponymous pipeline, alleging that the company hasn’t sufficiently taken responsibility for cleaning up the gargantuan leak.

In August 2020, two teenagers riding ATVs outside a nature preserve in Huntersville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, spotted a patch of dead grass with gasoline bubbling out of the ground. They called the local fire department, and thus began an investigation. The leak turned out to be from a 60-year-old underground pipeline that is one of the nation’s most crucial gasoline arteries, carrying 3 million barrels of fuel from Texas to New Jersey each day.

The leak initially made local headlines, with Colonial spokespeople assuring the public that they were taking care of it and that just 902,748L of gasoline had been spilled. But the size of the spill disclosed by the company ballooned over several months, reaching 4.5 million litres by March. This makes the spill the biggest gasoline spill since 1997, and one of the biggest spills from a pipeline on land in history. In August, a year after the spill was discovered (and the count stood at 4.65 million litres), the company said it didn’t know how long cleanup would take — meaning there’s still gasoline in the ground. Now, the company is facing a lawsuit over its actions.

In the court filing, the DEQ said that Colonial still hasn’t been able to provide regulators with an accurate and up-to-date estimate of the actual spill and has also not adequately inspected the possible contamination at the spill site. The complaint seeks a number of actions from the company, including providing an accurate assessment of gasoline spilled, monthly evaluations for various chemicals at the spill site, and conducting thorough evaluations of their leak detection systems.

There were some pretty serious safety questions about the maintenance of the pipeline given its age, and the company said in August that it still wasn’t sure what caused the leak or how long it was leaking. Even before the DEQ filing, regulators and officials have said the company was dragging its feet about informing them what’s actually going on. In April, the then-secretary of DEQ refused to give the company more time to complete a crucial report, calling its delay “unacceptable.” Huntersville town officials told WFAE in August that the company hadn’t given them an update in “months,” despite residents living near the leak being worried about their well water.

The company is owned by some pretty powerful corporations; its largest shareholder is Koch Industries, which made $US85 ($114) million in dividends from the pipeline in 2016. Royal Dutch Shell also has a stake. Sounds like all that big money is making sure everything is super organised and aboveboard over at Colonial HQ.

“Colonial Pipeline is reviewing the state of North Carolina’s legal filing submitted today,” Colonial said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to working with NCDEQ to address the matters identified and will remain on site for as long as it takes to restore the surrounding environment. We have made significant progress to date, and remain focused on recovering product as quickly and safely as possible which is in the best interest of the public. We are proud of our employees who have worked diligently since this incident began to protect the health and safety of the community and the environment.”

If the name “Colonial Pipeline” sounds familiar, this is the very same Colonial Pipeline that sent the U.S. into a gasoline frenzy in May after eighth-grade level hackers launched a ransomware attack on the company that made them shut the whole pipeline down for days. That led to gasoline shortages up and down the East Coast as people raced to hoard fuel.