In December 2014, more than 300,000 gallons of gasoline spilled from a Kinder Morgan pipeline just outside Belton, South Carolina. The spill leaked dangerous and cancer-causing chemicals including MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) and benzene into the groundwater. Five years and a major lawsuit later, it’s still not clean.
Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus joined Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) Frank Holleman at a special town hall meeting with local leaders Tuesday to give the public a long-awaited update. Kinder Morgan has never held a public meeting about the spill. Pointing to plots on a map, Holleman said, “All these markers are test wells, where they still find gasoline floating on the groundwater. That’s called free product.”
The spilled gasoline spread out underground for an unknown length of time. Kinder Morgan efforts, including mechanical checks with ‘pipeline pigs’ and visual flyovers, failed to spot the leak. Residents complained about the smell for weeks until a pedestrian noticed a sheen in the pipeline right-of-way. The extent of the underground contamination spread, or “plume,” is still not fully known.
“This plume still hasn’t been fully defined, this contamination is still flowing. The most important thing is to remove the remaining gasoline in the ground, soil, and bedrock. That’s the bottom line,” Holleman said, “It’s been five years since this spill. That’s longer than the U.S. was in World War II. We went from mounted cavalry to the atomic bomb in less time than it’s taking to clean this up.”
A top-notch professional hydrology organization was brought in to identify problem spots, better track the flow of the spill and provide an independent analysis. While they have identified some large pools of gas that could soon make their way into surface water, there is not enough data from Kinder Morgan to get a full understanding of how much is still out there.
Savannah Riverkeeper said they should be using more active recovery methods to clean up the site. Nearly 200,000 gallons were recovered early after the spill by vacuum, but at least 150,000 gallons remain. “It’s just like a sump pump,” Bonitatibus said. “They need to get out here and finish sucking this stuff out instead of letting it slowly leak into our environment and calling that clean.”
Kinder Morgan is currently using passive systems to dissipate the material, including an aerator in Broadway Creek. The spill affected Brown’s Creek and Cupboard Creek which both flow into Broadway Creek.
“Yes, the aerator does help break down the contaminants,” Holleman said, “But the problem is that we shouldn’t be using our creek to try to get rid of the spill. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place and it needs active measures to remove contaminants from our water.”
SELC, SRK, and other partners filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan. The case is currently in front of the Supreme Court awaiting a ruling, which is expected by the end of June.
Bonitatibus said, “Savannah Riverkeeper will continue to work with our partners, stay on top of information, and advocate for the well-being of the residents affected. We will advocate for the long-term health of the waterways. It’s been five years, just get the gasoline out. Don’t sit idle and let it just bleed out into our communities.”
South Carolina DHEC has the authority to force Kinder Morgan to ramp up their cleanup efforts. Little has been done on that end, but there is a webpage on the DHEC site dedicated to information about the spill.
“It’s not known where everything is flowing right now and there are gaps in the measurement knowledge. But you don’t necessarily have to answer all of the questions if you just get the gasoline out,” Holleman said.
Holleman said removal of the contaminants is just the right thing to do. He noted that the Belton area has a lot of pipelines, and it’s important for the company to be held accountable. This is not the first pipeline spill in the area. DHEC and other regulators’ hesitance to enforce cleanup sends a message to other companies that they won’t be held accountable if one of their pipelines fails.
“You can make a big difference,” Bonitatibus said. “Use your voices, write to the local papers. This spill was among the top 5% in the nation and it’s just being left. Together we can speak up and make a big difference in this fight.”