An interstate gasoline pipeline has ruptured in central Alabama, spilling 338,000 gallons of fuel in an ecologically sensitive area and threatening fuel shortages across the eastern US. So far governors in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina have declared states of emergency.
The line runs from Houston to the New York harbor, and experts say the line’s owner, Colonial Pipeline, was extraordinarily lucky: the spill happened 500 feet from the retention pond for a mining company, and all the fuel flowed into it. That spared the Cahaba river system, one of the most biologically diverse spots in the country, prized by scientists for its concentration of endangered species.
You really couldn’t have planned it any better than this. There are no homes nearby, and it’s fully contained. It’s so fortunate.James Pinkney, EPA
“Yeah,” said James Pinkney, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. He gave a wry laugh. “You really couldn’t have planned it any better than this. There are no homes nearby, and it’s fully contained. It’s so fortunate.”
The fuel could have flowed all the way to Mobile Bay on the gulf coast, bringing destruction for hundreds of miles. “Along the way it would have impacted all the wildlife living in it and drinking from it,” said Myra Crawford, executive director at Cahaba Riverkeeper, an outfit that monitors the ecological integrity of the watershed. “And plants like the Cahaba lilies – this is one of the only remaining sites where they are found. It could have been so destructive.”
Instead, she said, environmental workers have only found a few animals killed by exposure to the fuel. “A few raccoons,” she said. “It’s absolutely minimal. A miracle.”
The greatest danger from the spill, and what led to the declarations of emergency, is the likelihood that fuel shortages will affect states across the eastern US, starting in the southeast. The executive orders will loosen restrictions on fuel trucks, allowing them to supply gasoline where the pipe would have normally. Truck drivers will be able to work longer shifts than usually allowed by the US Department of Transportation.
“It is unlawful for any person within the State of Alabama to impose unconscionable prices for the sale of any commodity during the period of a declared State of Emergency.”From Gov. Robert Bentley’s (R-Ala.) state of emergency declaration
Meanwhile the tanker ship Ohio is on its way from Texas to New York with a freight of fuel to slake the need in northeastern states. By Friday afternoon it had rounded Florida and was off the coast near Savannah, Georgia.
North Carolina governor Pat McCrory wrote in his emergency declaration that “t￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼he uninterrupted supply of fuel oil, diesel oil, and gasoline, is essential for the health￼￼￼, safety, or economic well-being of persons or property in North Carolina, and any interruption of those fuels threatens the public welfare.”
Colonial also has opened up a second pipeline, called Line 2, that runs parallel to the burst line. It normally carries diesel and other petrol chemicals, but has now shifted to gasoline.
Even if all those measures are able to meet the need along the eastern seaboard, drivers could create shortages by making runs on gas stations. And station owners, in turn, could gouge drivers. Alabama governor Robert Bentley included a warning in his declaration: “It is unlawful for any person within the State of Alabama to impose unconscionable prices for the sale of any commodity during the period of a declared State of Emergency.”
The fuel that spilled may be useable, once it is drawn from the retention pond. On Friday Colonial had more than 500 workers at the site, trying to unearth the pipe and repair it.
“They have been amazingly transparent,” said Crawford, of Cahaba Riverkeepers. “We actually hope their response will serve as a model for future incidents.”
The job is only just beginning, though, and it is dangerous. The fumes from the spill are so volatile, Crawford said, that airspace above it has been closed, and roads in every direction are blocked.
Pinkney, the EPA spokesman, said that temporary dams have been installed downstream of the retention pond, so that if any gasoline leaks from the retention pond it can be stopped before it reaches the Cahaba river.