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How 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.

Tanker trucks line up at a Colonial Pipeline facility.
Jay Reeves/AP/Shutterstock
Tanker trucks line up at a Colonial Pipeline facility in Alabama in 2016, during an earlier spill of 250,000 gallons of gasoline.

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.

The reason two teenagers, rather than DEQ or Colonial, discovered the spill has to do with scarce regulatory oversight and a dearth of corporate concern for aging infrastructure. Colonial Pipeline operates a system of natural gas pipelines running from Texas through the Southeast and up to New Jersey, many of which have been in service for decades. The pipeline in question was made in 1978, per North Carolina Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg, and had been repaired once over the course of its 42-year lifespan—a 2004 job that was part of a purportedly successful integrity assessment.

According to the 30-day accident report the company was required to file with the U.S. Department of Transportation following the spill, the pressure at the time of the spill was 183 pounds per square inch, not even at the halfway mark of its maximum capacity. As the accident report noted, the leak went undetected because of the pipeline’s age. Thanks to federal law, Sorg reported, pipelines built prior to 2019 don’t have to have computational pipeline monitoring systems. So although a remote supervisory control and data acquisition system, or SCADA, was connected to the pipeline and working, there was no pressure drop registered by its overseers stationed in Georgia.

Two weeks after the spill, North Carolina House Representative Christy Clark and state Senator Natasha Marcus, whose districts include Huntersville, told Policy Watch that Colonial had been withholding in its early attempts to relay who first discovered the leak. Local residents—most of whom live off private groundwater wells—smelled gasoline and were concerned, Marcus said. Clark claimed that the company initially told public officials that the Colonial facility in Georgia was the first to notice a drop in pressure. “Then a constituent told me about the ATV rider,” Clark said. “And that’s when the story from Colonial changed.” Then began the ever-shifting numbers on the size of the spill.

The Colonial spill isn’t unique. Pipeline operators consistently undershoot the size of gas and oil spills in initial estimates. The bigger the number, the more concerned the local residents will be, the more pissed off their elected officials will become, and the more attention the national press will pay to the issue. This is how it played out in October 2019, when the Keystone XL pipeline burst in North Dakota. At first, TC Energy, the pipeline’s operator, reported the spill was in the neighborhood of 383,000 gallons, affecting roughly 2,500 square yards of land. A month later, the amount of affected land was bumped up 10 times over to 23,232 square yards.

In the latest Colonial case, the lowball method worked. Nearly every local news report from August 2020 printed the 63,000-gallon number reported by Colonial. Even when it jumped above 200,000 the following month—making it among the largest in North Carolina history—the update was received as almost something of a formality. After all, this is a state that was, and still is, fresh from dealing with Duke Energy’s coal-ash scandal. Another pipeline spill, even one that threatened to top the Tar Heel State’s record books, likely seemed par for the course for the region’s energy industry. But 1.2 million gallons isn’t a minor mistake. To put this in context, the largest pipeline spill in U.S. history happened in 1991, in Minnesota, when the Line 3 pipeline—which is currently being protested by Indigenous Water Protectors—leaked 1.68 million gallons onto the frozen Prarie River. The Colonial Pipeline burst is only (“only”) a half-million gallons behind that.

Colonial has been here before. The company also holds the record for largest gas spill in the neighboring state of South Carolina, having dumped 950,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Reedy River in 1996. The spill devastated local wildlife and vegetation, blanketing the shores of the river with 35,000 dead fish. Colonial pleaded guilty to criminal negligence and coughed up over $50 million in landowner settlements and federal fines. Reflecting on the spill 20 years later, in 2016, Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker told Greenville News that the company shaped up after that disaster: “Even today we still kind of point back to that as the day that things changed.”

But did things really change? As the News noted in its anniversary package, since then, another 470,000 gallons of petroleum, gas, or hazardous material were leaked by faulty infrastructure across the state, with Colonial responsible for 19 of those incidents. Its Reedy River record was nearly eclipsed in 2014 by competitor company Plantation Pipeline (a massive middle finger to whoever is naming these companies so aptly, by the way). Plantation’s Belton spill looked a lot like the Huntersville spill: A line installed in 1968 had a dent repaired in 1991 and then was … left alone for 23 years until it leaked 369,600 gallons of toxic gas in 2014.

Colonial has mostly escaped national scrutiny for its Huntersville mess. The spill has not been covered by The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, or other major national media outlets that could maybe raise this to the national consciousness. Right now, Huntersville residents and North Carolinians in general must depend on local outlets, which are doing the hard work of holding Colonial and DEQ accountable and keeping the affected communities updated. Thus far, DEQ has found extremely high concentrations of the cancer-causing compound benzene and others in the nearby groundwater. Three homeowners—including the Park family, who had maintained their house for 23 years before the spill—have been forced to move, with Colonial buying out their properties. Others have had to switch from private wells to the city water system, with Colonial pushing contracts featuring onetime $1,000 payments that allow the company and its contractors essentially unlimited access to people’s land. The rest turn on their faucets with trepidation. It’s an untenable situation, forced upon people in the middle of a pandemic and accompanying recession. As preschool teacher Shannon Ward, who’s lived in her house with her husband for two decades, told E&E News, “I’m mad at the oil and gas industry making people billionaires instead of taking care of their infrastructure. Beyond that, I’m just sad.”

At some point—and 1.2 million gallons is absolutely that point—more eyes and voices are necessary. Otherwise, in 20 years, people in North or South Carolina may again be terrified to turn on their taps while the company that has now set two horrendous state records is cashing their energy bills, comfortably assured that nobody else in the country will care.