The Alabama pipeline failure that shut down gas pumps and triggered price spikes across the Southeast is the worst in recent history for Alpharetta-based Colonial Pipeline, and one of 128 incidents the company has reported to the federal government over the past six years, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis has found.
Colonial’s spills since 2010 rank sixth-most among 208 pipeline companies, or their subsidiaries, that have self-reported in that time, according to data provided to federal regulators. The AJC analysis did not include natural gas or liquefied natural gas leaks, which are regulated separately.
None of Colonial’s spills caused injury or death. But more than half happened in “high consequence areas,” where there are large populations of people, drinking water or sensitive ecology.
Colonial’s ranking drops to the middle of the pack when spills are calculated per 100 miles of pipeline operations, the AJC’s analysis showed.
That’s because the company operates one of the most extensive webs of onshore pipeline systems in the U.S., with 5,600 miles of underground pipe, above ground tankers and pumping stations. Last year it moved the most liquid jet fuel, diesel, gasoline, kerosene and fuel oil by volume of any U.S. pipeline system — more than 38 billion gallons. The company does not transport natural or liquefied natural gas.
The cause and exact amount of leaked gasoline from Colonial’s Alabama line aren’t yet known. But estimates are at least 252,000 gallons spilled from an underground pipeline that runs through an inactive mine site in Shelby County, before a mining inspector discovered the leak Sept. 9. The company has said it’s possible that as many as 336,000 gallons seeped from the 50-year-old pipe.
Using the most conservative estimate for the Alabama incident, Colonial’s pipelines have now spilled at least 450,000 gallons of fuel into the environment since 2010 — from Texas to Virginia, Austell to Athens.
That amount of spillage would rank 17th on the list of the 208 companies reporting to the federal government.
In interviews, Colonial managers told the AJC that they have an extensive preventative maintenance program that in most cases finds problem areas before they start leaking. The company will spend $248 million on system integrity this year, they said.
Mark Piazza, manager of the company’s Integrity Management Program, said many of the reported leaks are contained on company property — about 90 percent, according to the data — and have no environmental impact.
“We stay well ahead of most of the problems that could happen,” said Robert Barbeauld, Colonial’s vice president of technical services. “We go above and beyond” federal requirements for maintenance, he said.
Several smaller spills in metro Atlanta
Colonial reported 11 spills in the year leading up to this month’s pipeline failure, amounting to 20,000 gallons of pollution released into the environment.
Those incidents include a 2,700-gallon spill at its Atlanta Junction tank farm in Austell, and 576 gallons that leaked in a wooded area close to Highway 316 in Dacula.
Colonial also had a 4,000-gallon gasoline spill in Virginia last September that was reported by an employee of a nearby restaurant who smelled the fumes. An investigation into the spill is ongoing, and the company signaled in its 2015 federal regulatory filing that it had incurred $18 million in cleanup and emergency response costs. Additional fines are possible, the report says.
There were also two smaller spills of about 700 gallons combined near the most recent leak in Alabama. One of those, in Heflin, is on the same line causing the current problem.
The spill in Shelby County has been especially painful for consumers, because it forced a shutdown to one of the biggest gasoline arteries in the country. The pipeline was down for 12 days until federal regulators gave Colonial permission to reopen on Wednesday, after the company built a 500-foot bypass around the damaged segment.
In the coming days, the company will begin excavating the damaged pipeline; cleanup and investigation of the spill is expected to last months.
Spills can be costly
Colonial’s record of spills is hardly an anomaly. The AJC analysis of spill data found 22 million gallons of all kinds of fuel spilled into the environment during the past six years.
The 208 companies spent more than $2.4 billion cleaning up, according to the reports. Colonial officials said cleanup costs associated with their spills are not passed on to consumers, because the rate it charges for conveying fuel is fixed and approved by the federal government.
The two biggest polluters were Enterprise Products, with 4.3 million gallons spilled, and Enbridge Energy, at 1.6 million gallons. In 2010, Enbridge was involved in the largest onshore spill in history when 1 million gallons of diluted and heavy crude oil flowed into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. That failure cost $765 million to clean up, and the company was hit with more than $180 million in fines.
Andrew Black, chief executive of the Association of Oil Pipelines, said that pipes are the safest way to transport fuel.
“Incidents over 500 barrels, like the one in Alabama, are 5 percent of all releases,” Black said. “We’ve got more than 200,000 miles of pipelines, primarily out of sight and out of mind. Pipelines are much safer than trucks or trains, and their safety record has never been better. They matter; Americans rely on them.”
A spokesman for another trade organization, the American Petroleum Institute, issued a statement in response to an AJC interview request. The spokesman declined to answer questions, but the statement said that 99.999 percent of crude oil and petroleum products transported through pipelines reach their destinations safely.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the non-profit Pipeline Safety Trust, called that misleading.
“What that statistic doesn’t say is that’s about three million gallons being dumped into the environment somewhere every year,” Weimer said.
The Pipeline Safety Trust is a neutral watchdog organization endowed by $4 million in fines levied in connection with a 1999 accident in which 225,000 gallons of gasoline handled by Olympic Pipeline ignited and killed three boys in a city park in Bellingham, Wash.
A spokesman for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration responded to an AJC interview request by requiring written questions through email. The agency then did not respond to the questions.
Company revenues top $1.27 billion
Founded in 1962, Colonial has grown into one of the biggest players in the pipeline industry.
Owned by a consortium of five companies, including Koch Capital Investments and Shell Oil Company, Colonial reported operating revenues of $1.27 billion last year. It was incorporated 53 years ago for the specific purpose of building its first line stretching 1,048 miles from Houston to Greensboro, N.C.
At the time, construction costs were $375 million. The leak in Alabama was from that original line.
In 2003, Colonial was hit with a $34 million fine from the Environmental Protection Agency — at the time, the largest in history — for seven Clean Water Act violations that spilled 1.5 million gallons of oil into waterways in five states. The company entered into a five-year consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which required that it spend an additional $30 million on system upgrades designed to protect the environment.
“This is a chronic violator having to finally pay the fiddler,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas L. Sansonetti said at the time.
Barbeauld said the consent decree ultimately improved the company and made its lines safer: “We wanted to get there anyway, but it provided a clear direction and goal to obtain.”
Weimer, of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said Colonial has a pretty good track record since successfully meeting the terms of the court order. “I hope this latest problem doesn’t mean they’re slipping,” he said.
And Black, of the Association of Oil Pipelines, acknowledged that the industry still needs improvement to reach its goal of zero spills. He said everyone has a part to play.
“Americans need the energy that pipelines carry,” Black said. “Americans need it carried in as safe a mode as possible. They need the operators and regulators to work together.”