250,000 Gallons of Gasoline Spilled by Colonial Pipeline

250,000 gallons of gasoline recently spilled from Colonial Pipeline into the land in Shelby County, Alabama. Colonial Pipeline, which is based out of Alpharetta, Georgia, announced the spill on its company website on September 9, 2016. The company claims that there is no threat to the public and is working with the EPA and local fire and emergency personnel to clean up the spill. A No-Fly zone has also been established in the vicinity of the spill due to volatility concerns, and residents have been warned not to use firearms. Due to the sheer size of the gasoline that is leaking into a remote patch of land, interruptions to eastern seaboard fuel supply are anticipated.

The Colonial Pipeline transmits refined gasoline products, such as diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel from Houston to the New York harbor. “Colonial Pipeline’s Line 1 transports gasoline from refiners on the Gulf Coast to delivery locations along the Eastern seaboard.”[1]

Approximately 50 million consumers are served by the pipeline. The company is preparing contingency plans for ensuring that all its customers are served. According to the company’s website:

To minimize potential supply disruptions caused by the interruption to Line 1, Colonial Pipeline has executed a contingency plan to move gasoline on Line 2, which normally carries distillate such as diesel, jet fuel and home heating oil to points north. The origination of gasoline into Line 2 has begun, and Line 1 has been restarted upstream of the impacted segment and is operating from Houston to western Alabama.

Fuel shippers have also begun to implement contingency plans to further mitigate potential disruption to their operations. For example, other segments of the fuel delivery system are executing contingency plans, such as dispatching waterborne cargoes from the Gulf Coast to markets along the eastern seaboard. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an official waiver for federal low volatility requirements under the Clean Air Act for certain markets in the southeast in an effort to further mitigate potential supply disruptions. Each of these measures has been taken to help the market adjust to alternate sources of supply.[2]

Forest Guardians; www.fguardians.org. Photo taken in New Mexico, USA
Forest Guardians; www.fguardians.org. Photo taken in New Mexico, USA

It’s a little difficult to wrap my mind around the extent of the spill described above. The company has dispatched more than 680 workers to contain the spill, which supposedly is limited to a mining retention pit that is isolated from the nearby Cahaba River. Workers are using skimmers to remove the gasoline from the retention pit and are building underwater dams to prevent the gasoline from further spilling into the Cahaba.[3]

Colonial Pipeline is a totally different company than Dakota Access, the company behind the construction of the Bakken Pipeline. But a pipeline is a pipeline, and a company is a company. More specifically, all energy companies promise they will extract and ship oil and gas safely, but the safety records of some of the largest and most respected of energy companies leaves much to be desired. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill dumped between 162,000 and 472,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.[4]

The company responsible for this spill was Transocean, which leased its exploration rights to BP. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989 when a ship ran aground in Alaska. An estimated 10,800,000 to 31,700,000 US gallons, or 257,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil were spilled, and the cleanup took years. The Exxon Valdez spill was listed in 1989 as only the 54th largest spill in history.[5] There’s been at least fifty-three larger spills in history . . . which tells you that drilling and transporting oil and gas involves risk.

By http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/photos/exxon/02.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1858
By http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/photos/exxon/02.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1858

The incidence of these spills also begs a question.

If these spills can occur in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and now in Alabama, what does this tell us about trusting energy companies to transmit oil safely across this great land of ours? 250,000 gallons of oil have just spilled in Alabama. If this large of a spill can occur in Alabama, then how can we be certain that an equally large spill will not occur in the proposed pipeline that will stretch from North Dakota, through South Dakota, Iowa, to its endpoint in Patoka, Illinois?

The Bakken pipeline is a 1,134-mile long underground oil pipeline and is expected to come online in January 2017. Frighteningly enough, the pipeline will extend through two of the largest rivers in the continental United States: the Mississippi and the Missouri. The Bakken pipeline, which is 30 inches in diameter, will carry an estimated 450,000 gallons of oil each day. What happens if somewhere along the 1,134 miles of pipeline, a hole forms? How much crude oil will leak into the land before the pipeline is shut down? Or if the leak occurs near an aquifer or a watershed, or God forbid one of our great rivers, how much will spill before the leak is discovered?

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

To recap.

A pipeline that runs from Houston to the New York harbor just spilled at least 250,000 gallons of gasoline into a remote piece of land in Shelby County, Alabama. The spill is so large that Colonial pipeline is anticipating possible interruptions to eastern seaboard fuel supply. The proposed Bakken pipeline will run between two major rivers: the Missouri and the Mississippi. A busted pipeline could absolutely destroy one of our great rivers. We must pause and ensure that Dakota Access pipeline is taking appropriate safety measures, and if we cannot guarantee this, then the pipeline has no business being built. Yes we need oil and gasoline, but it must be transmitted safely.


Update: As of 1:25 PM, 9/16/16, the company has updated the volume spilled. Now it is estimating that as many as 8,000 barrels spilled, which would increase the gallon count to an estimated 350,000 to 400,000. “Based on conservative evaporation models and assumptions, the spill volume estimate has been revised to fall in the range of 6,000 to 8,000 barrels.” https://helena.colonialresponse.com/ CDT Update # 14.


[1] https://helena.colonialresponse.com/


[2] https://helena.colonialresponse.com/


[3] http://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2016/09/15/pipeline-spills-around-250-000-gallons-of-gasoline.html



[4] http://chartsbin.com/view/mgz

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exxon_Valdez