Company still hasn’t revealed total volume of gasoline released in August; DEQ wants answers by Dec. 23.
The garage is empty and spotless.
A man lugs garbage bags stuffed with soft goods and crams them into his car, filling the back seat and passenger side.
Another man loads a truck bed with boxes. A woman tries to calm the family dog, who darts around the yard, tongue dangling from the side of his mouth.
The Parks family has owned this little yellow house on Asbury-Chapel Road in Huntersville, in northern Mecklenburg County, for more than 23 years. No, they don’t want to talk about why they are moving just weeks before Christmas. But since Aug. 14, when a breach in a section of Colonial Pipeline leaked gasoline into the groundwater, contamination has crept the 1,500 feet toward the Parks’ home.
“He was always working on his house,” says Marc Bellet, who lives next door with his wife, Julia. A new shed, new gutters, a paved driveway, and other improvements were all done within the last six months. “He had completely fixed it up.”
In late November, Colonial Pipeline bought the house, one of three the company has acquired in the neighborhood this fall. In total, land records show that two of the properties cost the company more than $500,000 — more than all environmental penalties levied on the company by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration since 1993.
The sales price of the yellow house was not listed in public records; but based on the excise tax paid, it could have been valued at $400,000.
A Colonial spokesperson confirmed that the company bought the homes. “In anticipation of additional work related to the ongoing assessment and remediation activities, Colonial has worked with some landowners to purchase property in the area of the release site,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “This will provide us with a safe workspace to support those operations and minimize inconvenience to those living in close proximity to the location.”
Beep, beep, beep, the sound of trucks shifting into reverse, begins at 7:30 in the morning. The thermal oxidizer, which captures, burns and neutralizes hazardous vapors, produces a constant din like a herd of leaf blowers all night long. Tower lights from the spill site pierce the bedroom windows.
“It’s been seven days a week since August,” Bellet says.
Meanwhile, four months after the accident, Colonial Pipeline still doesn’t know how much gasoline escaped from an aging piece of pipeline and entered the ground. Initially, Colonial estimated the spill at 272,000 gallons, the largest such accident in North Carolina history. But last month, state regulators determined that Colonial’s latest figure of 360,000 gallons (more than half the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool) still “significantly underestimated the volume of gasoline released.”
On Dec. 9, the NC Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to the company asking for more precise figures. “The Department directed you to provide an updated estimate,” wrote Michael Scott, chief of the Division of Waste Management. “As you are aware, the Department is still awaiting this updated estimate.”
These data and other key pieces of information, including Colonial’s most recent inspection reports conducted before the breach, are due Dec. 23.
Bellet stands in his backyard, which abuts a grassy field also recently bought by Colonial, and watches workers wearing hard hats and reflective vests drill yet another monitoring well about 400 feet and uphill from his home. Monitoring wells are marked by gray rectangular columns about four feet high. Recovery wells, which suck the petroleum from the ground, are designated with orange cones. The field behind Bellet’s house is checkered with them. Colonial says that extensive sampling shows the contaminants are contained within the “general vicinity of the release location,” although the company did not define “general.”
Nonetheless, Bellet has watched the cavalcade of wells advance toward his house. “Nobody’s told me anything,” he says. “I wonder, are we next?”
Contamination below ground includes cancer-causing chemicals
Next to the yellow house, the two-story Cape Cod emptied out in October. The owners just had purchased the home in May, and when Colonial bought it for $258,500, the firs someone had planted for privacy were still only ankle-high.
A monitoring well sits in the backyard encased in fluorescent orange snow fence. Mounted on a tripod, a nearby air monitor tracks emissions from the oxidizer. Workers amble through the yard. After all, it is company property.
By shipping volume, Colonial owns the largest refined liquid petroleum pipeline in the U.S. Its pipeline system spans more than 5,500 miles from Houston, Texas, across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic to Linden, N.J. The company transports an average of 110 million gallons of diesel fuel, gasoline, oil and other petroleum products every day. This summer, some portion of that petroleum began pouring from a break in a 42-year-old section of pipe. Two teenage boys riding ATVs in the Oehler Nature Preserve discovered the gasoline, which was gurgling to the surface from beneath the ground.
On Oct. 30, Colonial submitted a 4,800-page interim report, primarily maps, tables and test results. It noted that repeated sampling of drinking water wells within 1,500 feet of the spill had not detected petroleum products above laboratory reporting limits.
But the groundwater — the source of drinking water for private wells is contaminated with roughly 20 chemicals, some of them known carcinogens —as is the soil.
Company data filed with the state show that groundwater monitoring wells behind the Cape Cod detected several contaminants, including cancer-causing benzene. Likewise, monitoring wells roughly 300 feet from Bellets’ home showed groundwater contained elevated concentrations of lead, as well as bromodichloromethane, a degreaser and flame retardant, at eight times the regulatory standard. Exposure to high levels of that substance can harm the kidneys and liver; the federal government has classified it as a possible human carcinogen.
DEQ’s has classified the site’s risk level as ‘high’ because of the multiple water supply wells within 1,000 feet of the release. That’s why Colonial recently paid to connect the Bellets’ home to a public water supply. The house and the well are downhill from the contamination, and Bellet is concerned that soon his backyard will soon host its own set of monitoring wells.
“Should I plant my tomatoes?” he says. “When are the wells coming this way?”
The Colonial spokesperson said that the company remains “committed to protecting public safety and restoring the natural environment, while meeting or exceeding all required regulatory standards. As we have stated from the beginning, our goal is to restore the area to its original conditions.”
Colonial has estimated it will incur costs of at least $10 million, including $2.6 million to clean up and monitor the contaminated groundwater and soil in Huntersville, plus at least $351,000 in lost gasoline.
Yet, many of Colonial’s other cleanups across North Carolina are still incomplete, in some cases as long as 20 years after the first known incident, according to state documents. And those spills were smaller than the one in Huntersville. Add the contamination from PFAS — perfluorinated compounds — present in fire suppressants Colonial used in its emergency response, and it’s likely that the cleanup here will continue for decades.
The spill uprooted the renters from a brick house at 14108 Huntersville-Concord Road, directly across from the accident. In the frontyard, orange cones mark the location of recovery wells removing petroleum from the groundwater. On Sept. 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 can never be used again. On Oct. 3, Colonial bought the house. Monitoring well records submitted to the state indicate that benzene concentrations are 966 times the maximum contaminant level. Concentrations of toluene exceed three times that level, and another type of hydrocarbon associated with petroleum products, C5-C8 Aliphatics was 100 times higher than legally allowed.
This is common practice for the company. Since 2002 Colonial has spent more than $1.2 million to buy out homes and land near pipeline spills in other counties, including Davidson, Rowan and Cabarrus, according to property records: Seven tracts in Lexington, in Davidson, where Colonial has a history of spills since 1998; another seven in Enochville, in Rowan County, where 16,800 gallons of diesel and jet fuel spilled in 2001; and at least one in Kannapolis, where a release in 1992 required the company to excavate soil to bedrock; there have been two spills near the pipeline’s Kannapolis booster station since.
Buying the properties is a simple fix for the company. But it’s not simple 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 two homes near the spill.
Nearby homes will likely decrease in value. Nor does the sales price reflect the social cost of a string of vacant houses, 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 home has tall pines in the front yard, rose bushes in the back, fencing, a back patio, a disc golf basket where a son used play. It’s all the product of six years’ of tending and nurturing. “We don’t want to move,” Bellet says.