5 months after Colonial Pipeline gas leak, Huntersville neighbors discover clean-up could take years

North Carolina news

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (WJZY) – There are a pair of signs in a neighborhood just off Concord-Huntersville Road that only gives an inkling on what us directly underneath it. 

At the entrance to the Pavillion subdivision, on either side of the road, are warnings of a petroleum line underneath, and it’s not just any line. It’s is the main artery for the Colonial Pipeline, a 5,500-mile pipe stretching from Texas to New Jersey, sending gas, heating oil, and more through. 

For the last five months, it’s the main subject that’s been on the minds of people living next to it.

“We wake up thinking about it, we go to bed thinking about it, wondering what’s going to happen,” said Shannon Ward in an interview WJZY conducted with her in September.

“You would get smoke and mirrors and people would be just going ‘no problem’,” said Erin Cohen in an August interview.

“We don’t know how it’s going to affect us,” said Inga Ferreira, who lives at Pavillion. “We have zero trust in the system because of how it was handled.”

Ferreira’s neighborhood is just outside the 1,500-foot radius of a massive gas leak that sprung from the pipeline and was discovered on Aug. 14, 2020. By now, the story of how it was discovered is community legend–two boys were out riding around when they discovered something wasn’t right.

From that night on, crews from Colonial Pipeline have been out.  To date, the traffic issues are frequent and the clean-up itself has not stopped.

“This is serious,” said State Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County. “It’s only getting more serious as every day goes by and more and more gasoline is being removed from the ground.”

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said, as of late last month, nearly 500,000 gallons of gas had been recovered from the site. At last check, 3,000 to 5,000 gallons a day was still being removed from the site, meaning that the number is likely over the half-million-gallon mark.

Five months on from the mess, Marcus said there are some questions that still don’t have an answer.

“How long was it leaking underground before Colonial Pipeline was alerted?,” asked Marcus.

“How much gasoline was spilled? Until you know that, you can’t take the very simple next steps,” asked James Whitlock, attorney for Asheville-based environmental law firm Davis and Whitlock, who is now representing some of those who live closest to the pipeline. 

Whitlock said his clients worry about their way of life, the lingering effect on their property values, and the long-term effects to well water systems–something many in the area are connected to.

“They are worried about the integrity of their wells,” said Whitlock.

Officials with Colonial Pipeline and the state said water well testing has found no signs of water contamination from the gas leak.  However, reports submitted by Colonial to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality found abnormally high levels of some dangerous chemicals in monitoring wells, which had specifically been dug by Colonial Pipeline to monitor the leak.

Of note were levels of benzene, a component in gasoline.  According to state groundwater standards, one microgram per liter of benzene is considered the maximum amount that can tolerated without creating a threat to human health. 

One monitoring well, located near a home, measured a level of 3,730 micrograms per liter in a test conducted Dec. 2, 2020.  Colonial emphasized that this is from monitoring wells and not any residential water well, and does not involve any well water.

WJZY sent a number of questions to Colonial Pipeline about the leak and the progress in cleanup. 

In a statement, Colonial said, “Colonial continues remediation, site enhancement, product recovery and pipeline recoating activities at the site. Line 1 work is complete, and we are currently excavating Line 2 to evaluate and, as needed, replacing the external coating on the segment of the pipeline in the vicinity of the release site. This work is expected to be completed within the next couple of weeks. “

For months, numerous people WJZY has spoken with were concerned about the lack of transparency and honesty on Colonial’s part about the clean-up and its effect on the properties surrounding it. 

To those comments, Colonial noted their frequent contact with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and their reporting requirements.

“Colonial is committed to transparency and to regaining the trust of our neighbors who have been impacted by this event,” the company said in a statement. “We communicate regularly with the community, have an incident response site where we post frequent updates, and stay in contact with homeowners within the immediate area. We have also participated in Huntersville town hall meetings to provide updates and answer questions and conduct regular engagement with local elected leaders.  We meet twice a week with NCDEQ to coordinate our ongoing response while sharing data and updates on our remediation efforts.”

There is one pressing answer residents living near the leak have been wanting, specifically, to when the clean-up will be done and when everything will be back to normal.

“They have only said a spill of this size–and we don’t know how large of a spill this will be, ultimately–typically takes years,” said Marcus.

Ferreria, upon being told that, was shocked.

“Wow, that’s incredible,” she said.

Colonial acknowledged as much in their official statement on the matter to FOX 46, saying, “Colonial has reassured the public from the beginning that we will remain at this location for however long it takes to remediate this release event. Subsurface release events may take a number of years to remediate, and we want the public to know that we have an extensive monitoring and recovery well network in place that is working as designed. We continue to work in coordination with NCDEQ to develop a long-term remediation plan.”

In the past few months, there has been a noticeable change in the area around the gas leak, and those who have properties along the pipeline have considered selling. “For Sale” signs are also up near the intersection. 

Ferreria worries that if that time ever comes for her home, what could happen.

“Years later, there’s going to be a buyer negotiating based on the gas leak being there,” she said.

Ferreria is also worried about the environmental impact to the Oehler Nature Preserve, which suffered damage as a result of the leak.  Officials said a significant portion of the trees and vegetation at the preserve had to be removed because of the leak. 

Marcus said Colonial Pipeline has an obligation to get things as much back to normal as possible there, and Colonial said they will “fully remediate” the affected areas.

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