Gas crunch eases as pipeline resumes operation

Gasoline is flowing again in a major pipeline serving metro Atlanta, more than a week after a leak shut down the line and led to a supply crunch that caused spot outages and drove up prices.

Colonial Pipeline said it started sending gas Wednesday evening through a 500-foot bypass built around the damaged section in Shelby County, Ala., outside Birmingham.

“Colonial Pipeline Line 1 has been safely restarted and returned to service,” the Alpharetta-based company said in an update on its website late Wednesday.

Fuel only flows at about 5 miles an hour, though, and Colonial said it will still be “several days” before its part of the supply chain is fully restored, with “intermittent service interruptions” possible in the meantime.

Some stations were still shut down or out of certain grades of fuel Wednesday, and those with gas charged an average of 34 cents a gallon more than before the leak was discovered Sept. 9.

But even before the bypass restart, the outages seemed less numerous Wednesday, and prices in metro Atlanta were flat for a second straight day at about $2.50 on average for regular.

Convenience store chain QuikTrip, which has 130 metro Atlanta locations, said the situation was already improving.

“We started out yesterday with sixty stores without fuel, then this morning there were fifty stores without fuel and this afternoon there were forty six,” spokesman Chuck Barton said Wednesday afternoon. “We continue to get better every day.”

The leak occurred in a wilderness area about 30 miles south of Birmingham, disrupting one of two Colonial pipelines from Houston to Atlanta and up the east coast. The lines carry fuel from refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The line that was shut down was used primarily for gasoline. Colonial shifted some gasoline into the other line, which was used most for diesel and other fuels.

There are also two lines from Baton Rouge owned and operated by Plantation Pipeline, also based in Alpharetta. So the Colonial lines are not Atlanta’s only links to fuel, though they account for a major part of the fuel pool for Atlanta drivers.

Some retailers also made deals for alternative supplies during the shortage.

The cause of the leak won’t be determined until the pipe has been dug up and inspected, said Colonial spokesman Steve Baker. “Right now it is still at least partially underground.”

The problem in the five-decade-old pipe did not appear to be a fitting or valve, but the company can’t yet be sure about that, he said.

The leak spilled up to 330,000 gallons of gasoline into a rural area, most of it flowing downhill to a small retention pond. The company said 60 percent of the spill in the pond has been removed, with no serious environmental damage.

Colonial said more than 800 workers from the company and various agencies were on the site to design, build and sign off on the bypass, and to work on the cleanup.

While the pipeline problem created headaches for many motorists, the effect was softened by planning, said Angela Holland, spokeswoman for the 7,000-member Georgia Association of Convenience Stores.

“These retailers have been in the industry a lot time and they have contingency plans,” she said. “Our retailers do have fuel coming from other sources, from the Plantation pipeline, from the ports in Savannah and Jacksonville.

“Public fear really drove the demand way up,” since reports of shortages emerged late last week, she said. As long as demand is high, it’s tough to meet it and get things back to normal.”

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