On June 27, 1996, Donnie Tollison left his 50 head of cattle grazing in and near the Reedy River and his 25-30 goats in a hayfield and left for work. About 10:30 that morning, he got a call. He was needed at home.
When he arrived, giant trucks were parked in his freshly-graded gravel driveway. Workers scrambled down the banks of the river next to his rural home on McKittrick Bridge Road in Fountain Inn, placing large yellow booms in the water below a bridge.
Tollison tried to get his cows out of the river. Tried to round up his goats. And tried to get the trucks to get out of his driveway. It was chaos and he didn’t even know what was going on.
Then, standing on a bridge over the Reedy, he heard the wave coming before he saw it sweep around a bend in the river. The neon green rush of toxic diesel fuel stood nearly a foot high and wiped out anything in its path, bowling over the booms in the water and continuing downstream for miles.
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That was how Tollison was introduced to the largest pipeline spill in South Carolina history. The night before, a 36-inch petroleum pipeline operated by Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline Company ruptured just above State 418 in Fountain Inn at a section of pipe the company knew to be weak, spilling nearly 1 million gallons of fuel into the river.
Standing there, watching the wave wash down the river next to property Tollison’s family had owned for a century, Donnie Tollison said it made him sick.
“Fish were trying to jump out of that mess,” Tollison said as he recalled the event. “Wood ducks were covered. And the stench would just burn your skin.”
The headline in the next day’s edition of The Greenville News read “Now it’s called the river of death.”
Before it was over, the spill destroyed vegetation, killed wildlife and 35,000 fish along 23 miles of the Reedy River through Greenville and Laurens counties in one of the state’s largest environmental disasters. The company pleaded guilty to criminal negligence and paid $13 million in settlements to South Carolina and landowners and another $41 million in federal Clean Water Act fines.
That spill was the biggest catalyst that changed the entire company, said Steve Baker, Colonial Pipeline spokesman. New management took over and a renewed emphasis on safety and pipeline integrity began and continues today, Baker said.
“Even today we still kind of point back to that as the day that things changed," Baker said.
Twenty years later, evidence of the spill has all but disappeared. It’s silent on the Reedy River save for the occasional bullfrog or bird call and the gentle ripple of water.
Durant Ashmore, who owns a quarter-mile of riverfront and witnessed the wave of diesel destroy the river that morning, pointed recently to deer tracks along the river’s edge and depressions made by turtles, which were swimming in the knee-high water. Carp swim upriver in mid-May to spawn in the same place where yellow booms once caught diesel and pumped it into waiting trucks.
The river has recovered remarkably well, said Ashmore, a landscape designer who writes a weekly column for The Tribune-Times, which is owned by The News.
But a question lingers in his mind to this day: is it good or bad to live along the Reedy River?
“Is it the sewer of Greenville or is it the future of Greenville?” he said.
Ashmore loves the river, he said, “but if we’re going to have to experience diesel fuel and pollution…” he said, trailing off as he stared at the water.
Could it happen again?
In the 20 years since the Colonial Pipeline spill, pipelines have been involved in 40 incidents with major damages or spills in South Carolina. The vast majority of those incidents have happened in the Upstate, where two major petroleum pipelines – Colonial Pipeline and Plantation Pipeline – cut through the state.
Those incidents have spilled more than 470,000 gallons of petroleum, gas or hazardous material in the state in the last 20 years, according to data the companies self-report to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
Colonial Pipeline has reported 19 incidents resulting in spills in the time since its major Reedy River spill, some with cleanup costs exceeding $1 million.
All but three of Colonial's spills since the Reedy have occurred on Colonial-owned facilities. Two of those that happened on publicly-owned land occurred in 1997 and one, spilling 362 gallons in Simpsonville, happened last year, Baker said.
"Even one gallon is one gallon too many," Baker said. "But to put that in perspective, we transport more than 105 million gallons on our system every day."
Some spills have dumped as little as 8 gallons, while others – including two incidents each involving Colonial and Plantation within the last four years – have spilled tens of thousands of gallons.
One of those spills – reported in Dec. 2014 in the town of Belton by Plantation – stands out.
It’s believed to be the second largest spill in state history behind only the Colonial Pipeline disaster, and it’s showing signs of its environmental costs even as crews are still working to clean it up.
The Plantation Pipeline was likely leaking well before residents began to notice a gasoline odor and vegetation turning brown on former farmland in Anderson County, said Gary Poliakoff, a Spartanburg-based attorney who is now representing the landowners, Scott and Eric Lewis, in a lawsuit against the pipeline company’s owner Kinder Morgan.
The line had been installed in 1968 and repaired in 1991 after a dent was discovered. The company used a metal sleeve – “kind of a big steel Band-Aid,” Poliakoff said – to fit over the dent and reburied the line. It was not inspected again until Dec. 8, 2014 when the spill was discovered, he said.
In all, 369,600 gallons of toxic fuel seeped into the ground. In the year-and-a-half since the line ruptured, the company has recovered 209,000 gallons, according to a report obtained by The Greenville News filed by the company’s hired engineers, CH2M filed to DHEC this month.
In that report, the company said it has been unable to recover any more gasoline since early 2016. That means more than 160,000 gallons of gasoline has not been recovered. Some of that gasoline has seeped into groundwater and surface water along Brown’s Creek, which runs through the property and is a tributary to Broadway Creek and eventually Broadway Lake and the Savannah River.
Surface water tests have shown benzene, a highly toxic chemical in gasoline that’s linked to cancer, at levels well above the EPA’s enforceable regulation, according to the report.
Communications between DHEC staff and project engineers also detail a sheen of gasoline that has continued to show up in a fishing pond along Brown’s Creek as recently as March.
Melissa Ruiz, a spokeswoman with Kinder Morgan, said the company has been working closely with DHEC to fully remediate the site.
“All product on the surface has been removed, and we are now focused on removing or destroying the residuals in the groundwater,” Ruiz said. “We will continue to work closely with SC DHEC on our overall site corrective action plan until the site is fully remediated to the satisfaction of the state.”
The affected line has been repaired and is back in service and the company will monitor and inspect the system regularly, she said.
Ruiz said that Kinder Morgan is committed to the improving the integrity of its system and invests millions each year into maintenance programs to operate safely. The company outperforms the industry average in numbers of incidents and ruptures, according to figures the company displays on its website.
Plantation has been involved in two other recent incidents in its Upstate pipeline; an equipment failure in Spartanburg in 2012 and a line rupture at its Belton plant in May 2014 that sent a geyser of gasoline 150 feet into the air and spilled more than 25,500 gallons of gasoline, according to PHMSA and the filed lawsuit.
“Our goal,” Ruiz said, “is zero incidents, as even one incident is too many.”
So far, the company had reported cleanup costs to PHMSA of nearly $3.9 million for the Belton spill.
Nearly 100 monitoring wells dot the landscape of the Belton property, Poliakoff said. Before the spill, the property had been listed for sale, but the owners have received no interest since then, he said.
The case is in discovery and could go to trial in 2017, he said.
That spill, and others that dot the timeline over the last 20 years, show that pipelines are under-policed for maintenance, environmental impact and oversight, said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Effects of Colonial spill
Pipelines continue to pose risks to water resources, air and safety, and still lack the proper amount of government oversight, Holleman said.
“That has not been fixed since the Colonial Pipeline spill,” he said.
But ever since that spill, Colonial has put its own emphasis on safety and upgrades, and its safety record in South Carolina since then reflects those changes, he said. All of its incidents involving spills in the 20 years since the Reedy spill have totaled just over 70,000 gallons and 60,000 gallons of that was recovered.
The company flies over every line every two weeks to inspect for discolored vegetation or construction equipment on its right of way and it uses a new robotic technology called a smartpig that glides through the lines and uses sensors to measure line thickness and any dents in the line. The company then prioritizes those problem areas and digs up the lines to inspect and repair them, Baker said.
The company has also invested in training and coordination with first responders in case of a major incident, Baker said.
In Spartanburg County, where Colonial has a tank farm in Croft, the company has ramped up its communication and provided training on site to first responders, said Doug Bryson, the county's emergency management coordinator.
Bryson said he's noticed Colonial's involvement improving recently. The company has provided him with an online portal that shows the location of each of its lines in case of an emergency and it invested several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the water supply at its terminal to provide more water pressure to fight a possible gasoline fire, he said.
"That came as a result of training with the fire department in previous years," Bryson said.
While pipeline critics point to the hundreds of pipeline incidents that occur each year along the nation’s 2.5 million miles of pipeline, gas and oil companies point out that pipelines are the safest way to transport petroleum, much safer than train or tractor trailer transport, and the country has an insatiable appetite for gasoline.
Colonial's current pipeline is full and the company has received interest from customers to build another pipeline and is exploring its options, Baker said. He declined to say where the company was looking to build but said recent laws passed in Georgia and South Carolina that put a moratorium on pipelines using eminent domain to purchase pipeline right-of-way will be a complication.
There was some good that came from the Colonial Pipeline spill, Holleman said.
A $6.5 million settlement agreed to in 1998 between the company and South Carolina led to more protection of land along the Reedy River. Of that, $5.3 million was used to purchase land, including land for a wildlife management area in Laurens and 95 acres that would become Cedar Falls Park in southern Greenville County. Another $200,000 went to buy Lake Conestee on the Reedy River south of Greenville, which would become the Lake Conestee Nature Park.
Some went to water quality and aquatic life monitoring, a Clemson education program and to build a kayak put-in in Laurens County. And $110,000 went to buy wood duck boxes, which Ashmore said were installed but soon washed away during flooding.
“There’s been huge good that’s come out of the settlement,” said Dave Hargett, who was involved throughout the cleanup process and is now director of the Lake Conestee Foundation.
The river itself has recovered remarkably, he said.
“It’s probably in as good condition now as it was before (the spill) and probably better in some regards,” he said.
Dec. 19, 1992: A Colonial Pipeline ruptured and spilled 550,200 gallons of fuel into Little Durbin Creek and the Enoree River.
June 26, 1996: 36-inch Colonial Pipeline Company pipeline ruptured where a corroded portion of the pipeline crossed the Reedy River, spilling 957,600 gallons of diesel into the river.
June 28, 1996: The Greenville News story with headline “Now it’s called the River of Death” says the rupture happened at a point in the pipeline the company knew to be weak.
Feb. 1997: The FBI launches a criminal probe into the pipeline spill.
Feb. 1999: Colonial Pipeline pleads guilty to criminal negligence in state court and is fined $7 million for the spill, which killed 35,000 fish.
Nov. 2000: The U.S. Department of Justice sues Colonial Pipeline after negotiations on a settlement fall apart.
April 2003: Colonial agrees to record $34 million EPA fine for Clean Water Act violations.
Jan. 2009: Greenville County buys 95 acres to build Cedar Falls Park using $2.7 million of pipeline settlement money.