BELTON, S.C. — In a section of woods in upstate South Carolina, along the banks of a creek in the Savannah River watershed, heavy petroleum odors linger where a fuel pipeline released hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline and diesel into the environment.
Affected residents and environmental guardians, like Augusta- based Savannah Riverkeeper, gathered Tuesday night for a chance to interact with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control in person – and get answers to their questions.
The leak spilled from the aging Plantation Pipeline, owned and operated by Kinder Morgan. A legal battle over cleanup, testing and environmental damage has carried on for more than two years, including oversight and regulatory enforcement from DHEC.
Estimates from the Kinder Morgan’s consultant company said the leak amounted to nearly 370,000 gallons. However, an independent study conducted by Aquilogic disputed those numbers.
That analysis determined the spill was likely in excess of 550,000 gallons and spread toxic chemicals into the creek and surrounding lands. Data from that report shows Benzene, a known carcinogen, present in the soil along the bed of the creek.
Kinder Morgan has been working to clean the site, but according to Don Siron with DHEC, “I’m sad to report, environmental cleanups take a long time.”
According to the latest report from Kinder Morgan’s company running the cleanup, 213,951 gallons have been recovered from the leak site and more than 28,000 tons of contaminated soil removed.
But according to the Aquilogic numbers, that still leaves more than 336,000 gallons of petroleum, mostly gasoline, free in the environment.
Gary Poliakoff, the lawyer representing the landowner of the leak site, said, “Even using the Kinder Morgan company estimates of 369,600 gallons it is the second largest leak in South Carolina history and one of the largest in Kinder Morgan history.”
According to DHEC spokesperson Mihir Mehta, the initial spill reactions included 98 temporary wells to locate the product, 20 recovery sumps and 15 recovery wells to extract the product and booms in Brown’s creek to try to contain any surface water contamination.
Kinder Morgan had plans to build another pipeline, the Palmetto Pipeline, from South Carolina through Georgia, parallel with the Savannah River, into Florida. That pipeline was estimated to cost $1 billion, but ran into fierce opposition.
Kinder Morgan looked to use eminent domain laws to force landowners to give up land and access for the pipeline and a right of way. However, challenges from both landowners and environmentalist groups inspired legislators in Georgia to put the pipeline on pause. That decision led Kinder Morgan to abandon those plans.
While potential leaks from the Palmetto Pipeline, which concerned environmental organizations, could have had disastrous impacts on the Savannah River, DHEC said it has implemented plans to keep the Belton spill contained.
In addition to the initial steps, DHEC said it is working with Kinder Morgan to finish cleanup over the next few years, but some in the community weren’t so quick to buy in. One concerned citizen said the residents can’t trust Kinder Morgan and asked how DHEC could trust the company.
“The pipeline company has hired a nationally renowned company to conduct work and they employ professional engineers and geologists,” Mehta said. “The analysis of data collected happens at a DHEC certified laboratory.”
He said DHEC will start split sampling. Through that process, staff will take samples along with the company and will analyze it in a separate lab to verify results.
Liquid petroleum is still being pumped out of the ground by cleanup crews, but DHEC and Kinder Morgan plan to use biosparging in the future plan of attack.
Biosparging is the process of injecting air underground to facilitate the growth and activity of underground microorganisms.
Mehta said it takes a long time and there is no sure way to know how much of the petroleum those organisms will consume but that it is a technology that has been used at other leak sites across the nation.
“In 10 years, there will still be contaminated groundwater around that site and the hope at the site is just to get the surface water into accordance with federal regulations,” Poliakoff said.
Those federal regulations could potentially change under a Trump Administration that recently issued an Executive Order aimed at slashing the number of federal regulations. In five or 10 years’ time, as the cleanup nears the end, water safety regulations could look quite a bit different.
One resident asked how Kinder Morgan could lose so much gasoline without noticing, adding that he thought it must have cost considerable amounts of money to lose hundreds of thousands of gallons of product.
DHEC representatives said that question would best be answered by Kinder Morgan. The company was extended an invitation to the meeting but did not attend.
Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org