ATLANTA — Gasoline should begin flowing again Wednesday — through a temporary bypass on a critical pipeline — after a major leak in Alabama forced a shutdown that led to surging fuel prices and scattered gas shortages across the South, a company official said Tuesday.
The roughly 500-foot (152-meter) section of pipe serving as the bypass is now complete, but supply disruptions may continue for days, Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker told The Associated Press.
“When Line 1 restarts, it will take several days for the fuel delivery supply chain to return to normal. As such, some markets served by Colonial Pipeline may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions. Colonial continues to move as much gasoline, diesel and jet fuel as possible and will continue to do so until markets return to normal,” Colonial said in a statement.
Here are some details related to the spill that led to long gas lines and empty service stations:
Alabama state workers discovered the leak Sept. 9 when they noticed a strong gasoline odor and sheen on a man-made retention pond, along with dead vegetation, according to a report by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The preliminary report does not identify the cause as the federal investigation continues. It wasn’t initially possible to pinpoint the leak, partly because highly flammable benzene and gasoline vapors prevented firefighters and inspectors from approaching the site for days.
The company has acknowledged that since the spill was spotted, between 252,000 gallons and 336,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from its pipeline near Helena, Alabama. That’s no more than 37 truckloads at an industry-average 9,000 gallons per tank.
But because the leak forced a critical pipeline to shut down, its impact was far greater. The pipeline section that failed, built in 1963, runs from Mississippi to Atlanta.
WHOSE PIPE IS IT?
Colonial Pipeline Co., based in Alpharetta, Georgia, was formed in the 1960s by oil companies to transport their product along the eastern seaboard. It now operates 5,599 miles of pipelines, transporting more than 100 million gallons daily of gasoline, jet fuel, home heating oil and other hazardous liquids in 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to company filings.
The pipe that failed is one of two Colonial lines connecting dozens of refineries in Texas and Louisiana with cities from Atlanta to New York. Usually running at full capacity, it provides nearly 40 percent of the Southeast and East Coast region’s gasoline.
ARE THESE LEAKS COMMON?
The EPA fined Colonial $34 million in 2003 for gross negligence — at the time the largest civil penalty in EPA history — after it spilled almost a million gallons of diesel in South Carolina, polluting waterways in four states. The company also agreed to spend $30 million to upgrade environmental protections on its pipeline system. But spills happen often in the oil industry.
Since 2006, the company has reported 178 spills and other incidents that released a combined 193,000 gallons of hazardous liquids and caused $39 million in property damage. Most were caused by problems with materials, welding or some other equipment failure, according to federal accident records reviewed by The Associated Press.
The company paid $381,000 in penalties for violating safety rules during the same period.
The U.S. Transportation Department last year proposed new inspection requirements for pipelines in rural areas, including increased use of remote leak detection systems. However, the American Petroleum Institute has said retrofitting lines with remote-controlled valves could cost up to $1.5 million per device.
WHAT DID IT DO TO GAS PRICES?
The spill reduced fuel supplies in at least five states — Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas — despite executive orders by governors across the South to suspend limits on trucking hours, allowing drivers to stay on the road longer to bring fuel to gas stations.
The American Automobile Association reports that in Georgia, the regular gas price rose about 5 cents from Monday to Tuesday, to an average $2.36 statewide. That’s up nearly 27 cents over the past week. The price climbed nearly 7 cents since Monday in more rural areas of Georgia. South Carolina’s regular gas rose nearly 4 cents from Monday to Tuesday, and nearly 18 cents from a week ago. The Columbia, South Carolina area saw prices rise about 6 cents since Monday.
AAA reports Tuesday that Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia also saw prices climb since Monday.
WHAT’S THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement Tuesday that sampling teams are working collaboratively with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Cahaba Riverkeeper and Colonial Pipeline Company to collect water quality samples throughout impacted and potentially impacted areas at the response site.
The EPA said its water samples are consistent with the Colonial Pipeline Company water samples.
“Current sampling results indicate that the Peel Creek and the Cahaba River are currently not impacted,” the statement said.
The agency said it will continue to monitor water quality in Peel Creek and the Cahaba River.
The spill sent thousands of gallons of gasoline pouring into a retention pond at the site of an old mine, but no fuel made it into the nearby Cahaba River, in part because of locally dry weather.
“We averted a disaster this time,” said David Butler, an environmentalist with Cahaba Riverkeeper who has been monitoring the spill response at the site.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback and Kathleen Foody in Atlanta; Alex Sanz in Suwanee, Georgia; Jay Reeves in Helena, Alabama; Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the EPA fined Colonial Pipeline $34 million for gross negligence in 2003, not 1973.