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Gasoline Shortage Hits South and East Coast after Pipeline Rupture

The rupture reveals the hazards of pipelines, but also shows how important they are to the economy. Six governors declared states of emergency to deal with gasoline shortages resulting from the pipeline shutdown in Shelby County, Alabama.
September 20, 2016, 6am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The pipeline, owned by Colonial Pipeline Company, supplies 40 percent of the East Coast's gasoline. It runs from Houston's refineries to the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The leak was detected on September 9, not by the pipeline company but by "an inspector with the Alabama Surface Mining Commission [who] was performing a routine monthly check of an old coal mine in Shelby County," reports Dennis Pillion, natural resources reporter for Alabama Media Group.

[The] underground pipeline three feet in diameter...normally pushes 1.3 million barrels of gasoline per day from refineries in Houston to distribution centers across the Southeast and along the eastern seaboard.

That 36-inch line, built in 1963, has been estimated to supply the east coast of the United States with up to 40 percent of its gasoline supply.

Spillage, as of Monday, is estimated at 336,000 gallons. The gasoline appears to be confined to retention ponds in the mine.

Colonial Pipeline initiated a shutdown of Line 1 within 20 minutes of receiving the report about a potential leak.

For more than three days after the leak was discovered, pipeline workers were unable to access the site due to high levels of hazardous benzene and gasoline vapors that exceeded safe working conditions standards set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Pillon also reported "Federal, state and local authorities on scene have said the vapors do not pose a health threat to local residents, or the nearby cities of Helena or Alabaster," reported Pillon in a separate piece.

Colonial Pipeline public information officer Don Pozin said Sunday afternoon the company has installed multiple blockages to prevent gasoline from reaching the Cahaba River, which is home to numerous threatened and endangered species."

"In Alabama, Cahaba Riverkeeper praised Colonial for its transparency, noting that within an hour of hearing of the leak the company invited the group to monitor the damage," reports Jenny Jarvie for the Los Angeles Times. 

Media coverage centers on gasoline shortage

Gasoline will now have to find different modes of transportation to access markets. The four modes to transport petroleum and its derivatives are:

  • Marine vessel
  • Pipelines
  • Rail cars
  • Trucks

"With the flow of gasoline interrupted, the governors of six states have declared a state of emergency to allow truck drivers to work longer shifts to head off shortages at the pumps," writes Pillion. Trucks were not meant to carry petroleum and their derivatives over long distances.

Gas stations in Alabama and Tennessee have reported outages of some or all grades of gasoline, and fears of outages sparked long lines at the pump in Nashville and other locations.

Colonial announced Saturday the company will construct a temporary pipeline to bypass the spill site in hopes of restoring gasoline flows more quickly.

Pillion also reported that the bypass should be operational this week.

"Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has issued an executive order prohibiting price gouging in the wake of a leak at an Alabama pipeline that has sent prices up and supplies down," reported Leada Gore, also of the Alabama Media Group. "Georgia has been hardest hit by the leak."

Deal's declaration - which comes on top of ones in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia that suspended limitations on trucking hours – effectively freezes gas prices. The order prohibits gas stations from artificially hiking prices during the state of emergency. Stations are allowed to raise prices based on increased costs for transportation or resupplying but not on demand alone.

The New York Times reports that gas prices are surging across the South, though still cheap by California standards. Average national gas prices on Monday were $2.21 per gallon, according to AAA. In California, they were $2.76.

The AAA motor club said that Monday’s average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in Georgia was nearly $2.32, up from $2.26 on Sunday and about $2.10 last Monday.

“Prices are likely to rise even further until the pipeline is fully restored,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for AAA. “Once repaired, prices should quickly begin to decline.”

Theoretically, prices should rise because of the increased shipping costs due to the replacement truck delivery. Whether truck deliveries can compensate for the closed pipeline is another issue.

Dakota Access Pipeline

"The spill comes at a crucial time for the oil industry," reports Jarvie for the Los Angeles Times.

Thousands of Native American protesters have gathered in North Dakota in recent weeks to block construction of the new Dakota Access pipeline. They argue that the pipeline would pass through sacred sites and burial ground, and that any future spills could be culturally and economically catastrophic.

Not the first serious spill for Colonial Pipeline

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated a 1996 spill, also from a 36-inch-diameter pipeline, "where a corroded section of the pipeline crossed the Reedy River at Fork Shoals, South Carolina," notes the NTSB executive summary on the incident. It resulted in the release of "about 957,600 gallons of fuel oil into the Reedy River and surrounding areas." By comparison, the Shelby spill is about one-third the size.

NTSB blamed the company for lacking management controls in the Reedy River spill. One can't help but wonder how much worse the current spill would be had it not been detected on September 9 by an inspector with the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.

Full Story:
Published on Monday, September 19, 2016 in The Huntsville Times
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