A gasoline pipeline spill that’s seeping into the Savannah River watershed is the subject of a lawsuit filed late last month against pipeline giant Kinder Morgan.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Savannah Riverkeeper and Upstate Forever, filed suit against Kinder Morgan over the 2014 spill of at least 370,000 gallons of gasoline. The spill from the Plantation Pipeline in Belton, S.C., was one of the largest in state history and continues to discharge petroleum pollutants into a waterway that flows into the Savannah River, say attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Law center senior attorney Frank Holleman recently visited Brown’s Creek at the site of the spill.
“This morning I could see petroleum on the surface of the water,” Holleman said Friday. A monitoring well nearby has six feet of gasoline in it.
Dozens of municipalities rely on the Savannah River for drinking water. Kinder Morgan operates more than 3,000 miles of petroleum and natural gas pipelines in Georgia in addition to the liquefied natural gas facility at Elba Island on the river in Chatham County. It unsuccessfully tried to build the Palmetto Pipeline to carry gasoline from Belton to Jacksonville, Fla.
The suit sets out violations of the federal Clean Water Act and was filed in U.S. District Court in Anderson, S.C.
Kinder Morgan responded with a prepared statement saying its Plantation Pipe Line Co. has taken full responsibility for the spill and is committed to an investigation and remediation of the site in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.
“Our investigation and remediation efforts to date have achieved significant measurable progress, and we have submitted a corrective action plan to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental (Control),” the company stated.
Holleman said that effort intensified only after the conservation groups visited the site in August and found little remediation activity but an overwhelming odor of gasoline. They began their own investigation into water quality.
Among other findings, they learned that the company had been taking its water quality samples from the far bank of the stream, away from the spill, where flow from a tributary diluted the samples and made it the least likely spot to find pollution.
The Anderson County Council and numerous residents and organizations have criticized the proposed cleanup plan, which was filed in September, more than five months after the original deadline.
“DHEC tells us it’s going to require more than Kinder Morgan put in the corrective action plan,” Holleman said.
Kinder Morgan estimates it’s recovered 209,059 gallons of gasoline and excavated and disposed of 2,800 tons of gasoline-affected soil offsite.
The Houston-based company was unaware of the spill until local residents in December 2014 reported discovering dead plants, gasoline fumes and pools of gasoline on the site. Two years later, more than 40 percent of the spill has not been recovered.
Kinder Morgan criticized the Southern Environmental Law Center for refusing “to share or produce the full data and results of water samples SELC has taken at the site – until it was recently ordered to do so by a federal judge.”
“An organization that is truly committed to protecting the environment should be willing and eager to share its data and discuss potential remedial approaches without wasting the time and resources of the court and the parties involved,” the company statement said.
Holleman rejected that assessment. The company had subpoenaed the law center’s data and other records on the spill for use in a landowners’ lawsuit before the Clean Water Act suit was filed, he said. The law center eventually offered to share its data only, even though Kinder Morgan started collecting the same information itself just two weeks after the law center began doing so in August.
The issue proceeded to court, where a judge agreed that sharing data only was sufficient, Holleman said.
“This is a smokescreen by a pipeline polluter responsible for one of the largest spills in South Carolina history trying to divert attention away from harm done to the Savannah River watershed,” Holleman said.
The suit asks that the U.S. District Court require Kinder Morgan to stop discharging petroleum pollution into the waterway, that Kinder Morgan be required to remove gasoline from the site, that Kinder Morgan put in place more effective treatment of groundwater before it reaches the stream, and that Kinder Morgan be required to pay substantial fines for its continuing illegal pollution.
Under the Clean Water Act, Kinder Morgan can be fined up to $51,570 per violation per day, a fine that was increased from $37,500 as of Nov. 2, 2015. The possible total works out to more than $33 million and counting per violation.
“Because millions of people depend on the Savannah River watershed, pipeline spills cannot be allowed to go unchecked,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper. “Illegal polluters like Kinder Morgan should be obligated to act quickly and effectively in cases like these to stop their contamination of our clean water.”