The workers are drilling a surveillance shaft about 400 feet behind the Bellet’s house. The Colonial Pipeline will use the well to test groundwater for contaminants related to the largest gasoline spill in North Carolina’s history, which occurred in Huntersville on August 14. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
The company still hasn’t disclosed the total amount of gasoline released in August. DEQ would like to reply by December 23rd.
The garage is empty and immaculate.
A man drags garbage bags filled with soft goods and stuffs them into his car, filling the back seat and the passenger side.
Another man loads a loading area with boxes. A woman tries to calm the family dog who is shooting through the yard with its tongue dangling.
The Parks family has owned this little yellow house on Asbury-Chapel Road in Huntersville in northern Mecklenburg for more than 23 years. No, they don’t want to talk about why they’re only moving weeks before Christmas. But since Aug. 14, when a break in a section of the Colonial Pipeline leaked gasoline into the groundwater, contamination has crept up 1,500 feet towards the park’s home.
“He always worked on his house,” says Marc Bellet, who lives next door with his wife Julia. A new shed, new gutters, paved driveway and other improvements have been made over the past six months. “He had it fixed completely.”
Colonial Pipeline bought the house in late November, one of three the company bought in the neighborhood in the fall. Overall, land registry entries show that two of the properties cost the company more than $ 500,000 – more than any environmental fines the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration has imposed on the company since 1993.
The selling price of the yellow house was not listed in public records; However, based on the excise tax paid, it could have been worth $ 400,000.
A colonial-era spokesman confirmed that the company bought the homes. “In anticipation of additional work related to ongoing appraisal and remediation activities, Colonial has been working with some landowners to purchase properties in the clearance area,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “This will give us a safe place to work to aid these operations and minimize the inconvenience for those who live in close proximity to the site.”
Beep, beep, beep, the sound of trucks going backwards starts at 7:30 a.m. The thermal oxidizer, which captures, burns and neutralizes dangerous fumes, makes a constant noise like a flock of leaf blowers all night long. Tower lights from the overflow point pierce the bedroom windows.
“It has been seven days a week since August,” says Bellet.
Meanwhile, four months after the accident, Colonial Pipeline still doesn’t know how much gasoline leaked from an aging stretch of pipeline and got into the ground. Colonial initially estimated the spill to be 272,000 gallons, the largest such accident in North Carolina’s history. But last month state regulators found that Colonial’s recent 360,000 gallons (more than half the volume of an Olympic swimming pool) “still significantly underestimates the volume of gasoline released”.
On December 9th, the NC environmental quality department sent an Letter to the company requesting more precise figures. “The department has directed you to provide an updated estimate,” wrote Michael Scott, director of waste management. “As you know, the department is waiting for this updated estimate.”
These dates and other important information, including Colonial’s most recent inspection reports, prepared prior to the breach, are due December 23.
Bellet stands in his back yard, adjoining a lawn that was also recently bought by Colonial, watching workers wearing hard hats and reflective vests drill another surveillance hole about 400 feet and uphill from his home. Monitoring wells are identified by gray rectangular columns that are about one meter high. Recovery wells that suck the petroleum out of the ground are marked with orange cones. The field behind Bellet’s house is checked with them. According to Colonial, extensive sampling shows that the contaminants are contained in the “general area of the release site”, although the company did not define “general”.
Even so, Bellet watched the cavalry approach the wells towards his house. “Nobody told me anything,” he says. “I wonder, are we next?”
(Base map: Mecklenburg GIS; overlay based on real estate records. Graphic: Lisa Sorg)
Underground contamination includes chemicals that cause cancer
Next to the yellow house, the two-story Cape Cod emptied in October. The owners had just bought the house in May, and when Colonial bought it for $ 258,500, the fir trees someone had planted for privacy were still only ankle high.
There is a surveillance well in the back yard, which is surrounded by a fluorescent orange snow fence. A nearby air monitor is tripod-mounted and tracks oxidizer emissions. Workers stroll through the yard. After all, it’s company property.
Colonial has the largest refined liquid oil pipeline in the United States by shipping volume. The pipeline system extends for more than 5,500 miles from Houston, Texas, across the southeast and mid-Atlantic to Linden, NJ. The company transports an average of 110 million gallons of diesel fuel, gasoline, oil and other petroleum products every day. That summer, some of this oil began to flow from a break in a 42 year old section of pipe. Two teenagers who drove off-road vehicles in the Oehler nature reserve discovered the gasoline that gurgled to the surface underground.
On October 30th, Colonial submitted an interim report of 4,800 pages, mainly containing maps, tables and test results. It has been determined that repeated sampling of drinking water wells within 1,500 feet of the spill has not detected any petroleum products above laboratory report limits.
The groundwater – the source of drinking water for private wells – is contaminated like the soil with around 20 chemicals, some of which are known to be carcinogenic.
Company data filed with the state shows groundwater monitoring wells behind Cape Cod detected multiple contaminants, including carcinogenic benzene. Likewise the monitoring of wells About 300 feet from Bellets’ house, the groundwater was found to contain elevated levels of lead and bromodichloromethane, a degreaser and flame retardant, eight times the legal standard. Exposure to high levels of this substance can damage the kidneys and liver. The federal government has classified it as a possible human carcinogen.
DEQ’s has rated the site as “high” risk due to the multiple water supply wells within 1,000 feet of the release. It is for this reason that Colonial recently paid to connect the Bellets’ home to a public water supply. The house and well are downhill from contamination, and Bellet is concerned that his back yard will soon be home to its own surveillance wells.
“Should I plant my tomatoes?” he says. “When do the fountains come this way?”
The Colonial spokesman said the company remains “committed to protecting public safety and restoring the natural environment while meeting or exceeding all required government standards. As we noted from the start, our goal is to restore the area to its original state. “
Colonial has estimated it will cost at least $ 10 million, including $ 2.6 million for cleaning and monitoring contaminated groundwater and soil in Huntersville and at least $ 351,000 for lost gasoline.
Still, much of Colonial North Carolina’s other cleanup operations are still incomplete, in some cases even 20 years after the first known incident. And that spill was smaller than the one in Huntersville. Add in the contamination from PFAS – perfluorinated compounds – found in fire-fighting agents Colonial used for its emergency response, and the cleaning is likely to continue here for decades.
The spill uprooted tenants from a brick house at 14108 Huntersville-Concord Road, directly across from the accident. In the front garden, orange-colored cones mark the location of the recovery wells where crude oil is removed from the groundwater. On September 10, Colonial closed the home’s drinking water well and sealed it with more than two tons of a type of clay called bentonite so that the well could never be used again. On October 3rd, Colonial bought the house. Surveillance drilling records submitted to the state show benzene concentrations to be 966 times the maximum pollutant content. Toluene concentrations exceed three times this level, and another type of hydrocarbon associated with petroleum products, C5-C8 aliphatic, was 100 times higher than the legal limit.
This is common in the company. Since 2002, Colonial has spent more than $ 1.2 million buying houses and land near pipeline spills in other counties, including Davidson, Rowan, and Cabarrus, in 1998; another seven in Enochville, Rowan County, where 16,800 gallons of diesel and jet fuel were spilled in 2001; and at least one in Kannapolis, where the company had to dig soil to preserve bedrock following a release in 1992. Since then, two leaks have occurred near the pipeline’s Kannapolis booster station.
Buying the real estate is an easy solution for the company. However, it is not easy for homeowners and renters uprooted by these environmental disasters. The median home sales price in Huntersville is $ 339,000. well above the $ 250,000 average Colonial paid for each of the two homes near the spill.
Houses located nearby are likely to depreciate in value. Selling price does not reflect the social costs of a number of vacant homes, nor the financial and emotional investments people make in their homes. The new shed, the tree plantings, the basketball goal, the tire swing.
The Bellet House has tall pines in the front yard, rose bushes in the background, fences, a back patio, and a disc golf basket that a son played in. It is the result of six years of care and maintenance. “We don’t want to move,” says Bellet.
Above Left: The Cape Cod-style house Colonial bought in late October; The company bought the yellow house just before Thanksgiving. Both houses on Asbury-Chapel Road have surveillance wells in the back. The brick house on Huntersville-Concord Road is directly across from the spill. Colonial bought it in early October and closed the drinking water well so it could never be used again. (Photo of Cape Cod by Lisa Sorg; yellow house and brick house above land registry entries of the district of Mecklenburg)