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NC, Colonial Pipeline reach agreement on handling fuel spill

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Colonial Pipeline has agreed to a consent order which says it should be held accountable for a gasoline spill in a North Carolina nature preserve that was found to be far worse than what the company initially said, a state agency said Thursday.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality filed the order with Mecklenburg County Superior Court, according to a news release. Colonial Pipeline would be required under the order to apply specific remedies and pay nearly $5 million related to the August 2020 spill in the Oehler Nature Preserve near Huntersville, about 14 miles north of Charlotte.

Last November, NCDEQ filed a 29-page lawsuit in which it called on Colonial to take a number of steps, including removal, treatment or control any source of petroleum, polyfluoroalkyl, also known as PFAS, or other contaminants that have the potential to contaminate groundwater.

Colonial Pipeline, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, issue a statement saying it will “take every appropriate step at the site to remediate it consistent with all regulatory requirements.”

“The Consent Order requires Colonial to meet its obligations to the communities impacted by the release, starting with an accurate accounting of the spill volume,” said NCDEQ Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser in the news release.

The terms of the proposed consent order include a civil penalty of $4.5 million plus $250,000 in investigative costs and additional stipulated penalties for failure to perform activities or meet the required schedule, the news release said.

In September 2020, Michael Regan, then-secretary of the NCDEQ, said 273,000 gallons of gasoline spilled in the nature preserve near Huntersville, The Charlotte Observer reported. The county had reported the previous month that 63,000 gallons were spilled.

But Colonial Pipeline reported to regulators in January that the estimated amount of gasoline released from the underground pipeline was 1.12 million gallons. According to an NCDEQ news release at the time, Colonial recovered more than 1.23 million gallons of petroleum product from the site, according to the news release, but the department said it failed to provide an updated volume estimate of the release.

If the court determines a hearing is necessary, it will be scheduled for July 26.

The Colonial Pipeline, which delivers about 45% of the fuel consumed on the East Coast, was hit in May 2021 with a cyberattack by hackers who locked up computer systems and demanded a ransom to unlock them. The hackers did not gain control of the pipeline operations, but Colonial shut down the pipeline to contain the damage.

The resulting disruption caused long lines at gas stations in the Southeast due to distribution problems and panic-buying, draining supplies at thousands of gas stations.

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