Belton, S.C., spill a cautionary tale on pipeline safety, advocates say

 

BELTON, S.C. — Nearly a year after a petroleum spill outside a sleepy South Carolina town by a company that wants to build a pipeline through some Augusta-area counties, cleanup is still far from finished.

The Plantation Pipeline, acquired by Kinder Morgan in 2000, spilled an estimated 369,600 gallons of gasoline on a 365-acre property at the intersection of Lewis Drive and West Calhoun Road near Belton in rural Anderson County. That came roughly eight months after a spill on a different property in Belton caused $1.1 million in damage.

Through the end of September, only about half of the material spilled – 195,534 gallons – had been recovered.

According to an accident report submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Adminis­tration, Plantation Pipe Line Co., which operates the system, wasn’t aware of the incident until it was notified by the public.

Spartanburg, S.C.-based attorney Gary Poliakoff, who represents the family who owns the property, said that’s reason to believe the spill had been going on for sometime before residents noticed the faint smell of gasoline and saw the material pooling on the surface of a farm owned by Eric and Scott Lewis.

Spills from a pipeline occur less frequently than those using other forms of transportation, but according to industry studies, when they happen they create more of a mess.

Opponents of Kinder Morgan’s proposed Palmetto Pipeline, projected to run from Belton to Jack­son­ville, Fla., say the Belton spill serves as a cautionary tale for landowners along its route.

The 360-mile pipeline is expected to run through properties in Aiken, Edgefield, McCormick, Richmond and Burke counties locally. One of the potential landowners affected is William S. Morris III, who owns Morris Publishing Group LLC, the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle and the Savannah Morning News. A judge said Friday that she won’t make a decision until sometime next year on whether Georgia wrongly denied Kinder Morgan permission to take land from property
owners in the state to build the pipe­line.

The spill from the Belton pipeline was confirmed about 7:40 a.m. Dec. 8, 2014, by Plantation Pipe Line officials, who attributed it to a crack in a sleeve installed over a dent in the 26-inch pipe in 1991. Documents show that particular section of the pipeline had been constructed in 1968 but don’t say what caused the dent.

On Nov. 5, Poliakoff filed suit against Kinder Morgan and several of its subsidiaries on behalf of the Lewis family for the devaluation of the property, calling into question Kinder Morgan’s history of accidents and safety violations. The Lewis family was compensated when the pipeline was first buried about 6 feet deep on the property, but the heirs of the property aren’t sure how much their family was paid, he added. He wouldn’t say how much the family is seeking in damages.

“We believe that this would be an appropriate case for punitive damages on top of any directly identified appraisal-type loss figures,” he said.

Citing state law, Poliakoff wouldn’t provide figures on how the spill affected the value of the Lewis family farm, but he said that “contamination from the spill has drastically reduced the value of (the) tract of land.”

Property damage disputed

Anderson County property records show the land has a market value of $442,250, though it doesn’t state when the property was last appraised. It was listed to be sold as commercial property a few months before the spill.

That particular area of Ander­son County has seen some growth in industrial developments over the years, Poliakoff said.

“Of course, there has been zero interest by anybody since the release,” he said.

He predicts about 50 acres of the property is now contaminated because of the spill, but that number grows as more material seeps deeper into the ground.

Kinder Morgan contends the spill has affected no more than 35 acres, and that it had offered to purchase the contaminated areas of the Lewis property at its appraised value or compensate the family for lost crops or rental income.

“In short, Plantation has promised that the site will be cleaned and the plaintiffs will be made whole,” spokeswoman Sara Hughes said in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

The company rejected a request to be paid “an outrageous amount which was completely divorced from reality,” Hughes said, adding that the company is unwilling to negotiate a settlement
based on “unrealistic appraisals, an unsupported threat of punitive damages or a desire to collect an unjustified windfall from the incident.”

“Notwithstanding the filing of the suit,” she said, “Plantation stands ready to fully compensate the plaintiffs for their actual losses, and we remain committed to
cleaning up the property completely.”

The South Carolina Office of Regu­latory Staff was named in the suit because it “failed to require (Kin­der Morgan) to provide for sufficient maintenance, repairs and operational attention to the pipeline.”

The affected area, once full of vegetation, is now patchy after recovery crews hauled off several tons of contaminated dirt. PVC pipes dot the landscape, marking the location of monitoring wells, and a wooden stick stuck into the ground marks the approximate location of the spill – a few paces from the road and less than a football field away from a two-story home. A swampy area on the property is now cordoned off with booms to collect any floating material.

The smell of gas no longer lingers.

Repairs to the pipeline

Poliakoff contends that the proper way to repair the dent to the Plantation Pipeline would have been to remove the damaged section and replace it with a new 26-inch pipe. It was instead covered with cement and wrapped with the metal sleeve, he said.

“Apparently that worked for probably 20 years, but it certainly failed last year,” he said.

Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz said sleeves are a common way to repair and reinforce pipelines.

She didn’t know exactly how many sleeves were located along the Plantation Pipeline, but a safety order issued by the Transportation De­part­ment’s pipeline agency shortly after the spill showed that data collected by Plantation Pipe Line Co. during a previous routine inspection identified 291 steel sleeves along its 3,100-mile network, noting when each sleeve was installed and why.

A metallurgical analysis of the pipe removed from the Lewis family farm found that the leak occurred after issues with the “longitudinal weld seam” on the sleeve, according to the order.

After the Belton spill, Plantation Pipe Line Co. identified seven sleeves that had been installed before 1985 that were excavated and inspected for similar issues, though none were found to leak.

One accident is too many, Ruiz said, adding that Kinder Morgan “meets and exceeds” state and federal regulations to monitor, test and inspect the integrity of its pipelines.

Kinder Morgan-owned pipelines in particular are expected to be monitored around the clock by its Supervisory Control and Data Ac­qui­sition computer system, which should alert the company when operating conditions change to allow a quick shutdown, Ruiz said. Internal inspections are conducted by “smart pigs,” a specialized electronic device that travels
the length of the pipe to detect anomalies in the thickness of the pipe walls.

The sleeve in Belton was unique in that it used a welding technique that was once standard but has since been improved.

“Following the release and per its agreement with federal regulatory agencies, Kinder Morgan is in the process of, and has nearly completed, inspecting and evaluating all comparable and more recently installed sleeves along the system,” Ruiz said.

The safety measures are a major reason that pipelines are the preferred method of transporting petroleum products, she said.

Pipeline safety reviewed

According to one study published by the Manhattan Institute in June 2013, natural gas and hazardous material pipelines experience less than one incident per billion ton-miles traveled each, based on data from 2005 to 2009 from the Trans­portation Department’s pipeline agency.

Comparatively, material carried over roads suffered nearly 20 incidents per billion ton-miles over the same period. Railways had an incident rate of 2.08.

Those numbers are favorable for Kinder Morgan, which has been met with much backlash after proposing the Palmetto Pipeline.

The project is in legal limbo after the Georgia Department of Trans­portation in May denied a request by Palmetto Products Pipe Line LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, to use a certificate of public necessity and convenience to condemn the property of about 400 landowners along the pipeline’s route.

The company has appealed that decision, but Georgia officials asked to dismiss the appeal on a technicality.

Despite safety concerns, Ruiz said the numbers show pipelines have a much better track record than other means of transportation.

“In contrast to other forms of transportation, pipelines are the most efficient and safest method by which our industry transports vital products to meet the ever-increasing demand for energy,” she said via e-mail.

According to the Department of Transportation’s pipeline agency, even a smaller pipeline could only be matched in efficiency by a “constant line of tanker trucks, about 750 per day, loading up and moving out every two minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

However, a separate study by the Fraser Institute noted that while incident rates were low for petroleum pipeline spills, “pipelines have significantly larger spill volumes on an annual basis, some 6.6 million gallons per year.”

Still, the amount of material spilled is relatively small considering the volume moved on a daily basis, the report said.

The Palmetto Pipeline is designed to carry up to 7 million gallons per day.

When responding to inquiries in September, Ruiz shared an infographic by the American Petroleum Insti­tute and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines that claimed the number of pipeline incidents were halved from 1999 to 2013, and that nearly 100 percent of crude oil and petroleum transported through pipelines reach their destinations.

But according to an Associated Press database on pipeline spills from 1995 to 2014, there were more than 2,000 significant incidents involving pipelines, averaging 103 over the 20-year period. Over the past three years, however, the average has grown to 117.

The federal Transportation Department defines a significant incident as “one in which there is either a fatality or injury requiring hospitalization; costs of at least $50,000 as measured in 1984 dollars; the release of at least 50 barrels (2,100 gallons) of oil or petroleum liquids; or liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion.”

Two of the incidents in the database took place just outside Belton, the town of roughly 4,400 where new construction of the Palmetto Pipeline is expected to begin.

Before the December spill, Plan­ta­tion Pipe Line Co. experienced a gasoline rupture in May 2014, this time on Broadway Lake Road in Belton. Media reports say the leak sent a geyser of gas 150 feet into the air, spilling about 26,000 gallons.

Workers were reportedly doing routine maintenance when the line broke. Local homeowners weren’t required to evacuate.

Other pipeline trouble

In all, there were 28 incidents in the AP database involving the Plantation Pipeline, but that number was dwarfed by the 55 incidents reported along the Colonial Pipeline, which also passes through Belton and has a segment that feeds into already-existing depots near Interstate 20 in North Augusta that are owned by Kinder Morgan and Colonial Pipeline Co.

The most recent spill for the Colonial Pipeline, according to the database, happened in Guilford, N.C., on May 28, 2014. Corrosion resulted in a leak that spilled about 672 gallons of material.

The Colonial Pipeline, which broke ground in 1962, carries more than 100 million gallons of fuel along a 5,500-mile system that runs from Houston to Linden, N.J. It’s owned by five entities, including Shell Pipeline Co. and Koch Capital Investments Co.

According to Kinder Morgan’s Web site, its North Augusta terminal fed by the Colonial Pipeline has a total storage capacity of 34.9 million gallons of material.

Response to an incident is largely dependent on the location and scope of the spill, Ruiz said.

Companies such as Kinder Morgan rely on local fire and police departments to assist with the initial response, and once the
area is secure, in-house response teams will respond to assess the situation.

Recovery and monitoring efforts in Belton are being handled by CH2M on behalf of Plantation Pipe Line Co. The company submits biweekly status updates to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Given that the gasoline spilled in Belton has reached the underground water table, some are concerned that another spill in the area served by the Floridan aquifer – where a portion of the Palmetto Pipeline is expected to run – would have serious ramifications with regard to the water supply.

Some of those concerns were detailed in an e-mail from David Kyler, the executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, to a Glynn County commissioner that cited Belton as a cautionary tale.

“If such a leak entered any coastal aquifer, it could pollute billions of gallons of our essential water supplies,” said the e-mail, which was obtained through an open records request. Kyler wrote that “no such risks to vital public resources are acceptable, especially when there is no demonstrated need for the pipeline.”

Jim Reichard, a professor of geology at Georgia Southern Univer­sity, said that once an aquifer has petrochemicals in it, it’s essentially contaminated forever.

“But people need to realize our aquifer system (along the Georgia coast) is buried beneath hundreds of feet of sediment, and some of it is what we call low-permeable clay,” he said. “So, there’s very low risk to our drinking water because it is so deep.”

Environmentally, Reichard said, the main concern in Georgia would be with the surface water.

Kyler said he’s more concerned with how long it might take to discover a leak. In Belton, officials were able to shut off the pipeline to prevent further spillage, but only after it had been leaking for some time.

Considering how the spill was handled in Belton, Anderson Coun­ty Councilwoman Cindy Wilson said she would be opposed to having a second pipeline built in the county despite promises from Kinder Morgan that any new construction would use the latest in safety technology.

“I just go back to that old Sou­thern belief that anything worth doing is worth doing right,” she said.

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