Headaches continue for fuel-reliant Georgians after pipeline shutdown

Traffic was jammed with fuel delivery trucks on the 4000 block of Winters Chapel Road  in Doraville on Thursday, May 13, 2021. This facility receives petroleum through Colonial Pipelines. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Traffic was jammed with fuel delivery trucks on the 4000 block of Winters Chapel Road in Doraville on Thursday, May 13, 2021. This facility receives petroleum through Colonial Pipelines. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

From trucking companies to social workers, locals feel the pinch

Even as the owners of Alpharetta-based Colonial Pipeline announced “substantial progress” in restarting their fuel distribution network, Georgia consumers and businesses on Thursday continued to feel the ripple effects of the outage caused by last week’s cyberattack.

Lines at metro Atlanta gas stations were once again long and unforgiving, with gasoline or diesel outages reported at 68% of the region’s pumps, according to GasBuddy.

The average price of gas rose to $3.02 per gallon, the crowdsourcing app said, up 30 cents from Friday, when Colonial Pipeline shut down its 5,500-mile system in response to the ransomware attack. The pipeline supplies about 45% of the East Coast’s gas and diesel.

The situation prompted panic-buying across the Southeast and plenty of hand-wringing among Georgians reliant on their cars for their livelihoods.

“If I can’t fill up this weekend, I cannot go back to work until I do,” said Carrie Genova, a child advocate in Sugarhill who drives to her clients.

But perhaps no industry felt the changes more acutely than the trucking companies that specialize in offloading gas and petroleum from fuel terminals and driving the supply to gas stations and other clients.

Deborah Latham’s phones have been ringing nonstop in recent days. The owner of Doraville-based Georgia Tank Lines is hearing from lots of clients anxious that they won’t have enough fuel to sell their customers or to haul goods or food from warehouses to stores.

Latham’s trucks, which hold about 8,800 gallons of gas each, normally shuttle between clients and fuel terminals in Doraville or Atlanta’s Westside. But, in recent days, Latham says her 37 drivers have reported “horrendous” lines at the loading terminals.

“This kind of stuff has made it a real ordeal,” she said.

Colonial Pipeline said late Thursday that it has restarted its entire system, which runs from Texas to New Jersey. The company is expecting it to take several days for the supply chain to return to normal. Oil pipelines typically move fuel at roughly five miles per hour, and some analysts believe it could take weeks for a full recovery due to lags in the system.

“Some markets served by Colonial Pipeline may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions during this start-up period,” a statement issued by the company said. “Colonial will move as much gasoline, diesel and jet fuel as is safely possible and will continue to do so until markets return to normal.”

President Joe Biden said he expects a “region-by-region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week.”

In remarks from the Roosevelt Room, Biden said U.S. officials “have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia,” though they don’t think the Russian government was involved.

Colonial Pipeline’s latest statement did not address a report from Bloomberg News, which was later confirmed by other news outlets, that said the company paid hackers a $5 million ransom last week to recover its data. A spokesman working with Colonial Pipeline declined to comment.

In the meantime, Georgia consumers must largely rely on a second, smaller pipeline operated by the Alpharetta-based Products (SE) Pipe Line Corp.

ExploreMetro Atlantans struggle to find gas despite pipeline restart

Stranded motorists across much of Georgia may have a tougher time getting assistance from the state’s CHAMP units. The units — which operate outside of metro Atlanta — usually give motorists who run out of fuel on the highways enough to get to a nearby service station, but the state has temporarily stopped providing gasoline. The units that patrol highways in metro Atlanta are still providing gasoline.

Georgia Department of Transportation spokesperson Natalie Dale said operators are having trouble getting gas at various locations.

“As the stores start getting back to normal, we will continue to evaluate daily how things are going and will remove the suspension when it dictates that it won’t add to the strain on the system,” Dale said.

A MARTA spokesperson said the gas shortage has not affected transit service, but agency employees have been directed to avoid nonessential driving.

Some local companies that are heavily reliant on fuel say they’ve felt no impact from the shutdown because of backup supplies.

The Sandy Springs-based UPS said it buys much of its fuel in bulk and strategically places it on properties where it might be needed the most as a contingency step.

UPS also has one of the largest private fleets of alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles, with more than 13,000 electric, hybrid electric, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas and propane vehicles.

“UPS’s alternative fuel vehicles can certainly help in situations like this,” said company spokesman Glenn Zaccara.

Similarly, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Delta Air Lines said their backup jet fuel supplies are keeping operations running without interruption.

Several local counties have private fueling stations to power everything from fire trucks to lawnmowers for local parks. Still, some are advising staff to limit how much gas they pump or to prioritize public safety and critical infrastructure functions.

Clayton County Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford said Thursday that staff had been instructed to add no more than 10 gallons if needed.

Stanford said the county feels comfortable right now that it has enough to continue operating as normal in the coming days, but wants to leave enough in tanks in case of a prolonged national shortage.

DeKalb officials reported the county’s fleet management division currently has about a four-week reserve of diesel and more than two weeks of gasoline for county vehicles at its 29 private supply locations. They do not currently anticipate any interruption in county services. Ditto for several cities in Cobb and the city of Atlanta, though the latter asked city department’s to “limit fuel usage to essential work functions and limit travel when possible.”

For most area residents, however, finding gas remained a punishing scavenger hunt.

Schalanda Henderson, an UberEats driver from Duluth, saw lines for gas on Tuesday and was able to fill up then. But she sat out driving Wednesday and Thursday, worried that she’d run out of fuel while making food deliveries.

“I’m scared to go anywhere,” she said.

Henderson was hoping gas supplies would rebound enough for her to be back working on Friday and the weekend, normally busy times for her.

For Latham, the trucking company owner, the headaches aren’t likely to end anytime soon. While making a fuel delivery to a grocery store in north Gwinnett on Wednesday, one of Latham’s drivers was not able to enter the parking lot because it was packed with drivers who weren’t willing to give up their spots in line to let the truck through.

The grocery store had to call the police to clear a path.

Staff writers Kelly Yamanouchi, Matt Kempner, Chris Quinn, David Wickert, Wilborn P. Nobles III, Tyler Wilkins, Tyler Estep, Matt Bruce and Leon Stafford contributed to this article.

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