Dissatisfied with the progress of an oil spill cleanup in South Carolina, environmentalists are laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against a national energy company over the 2014 petroleum leak near Belton.
The Savannah Riverkeeper and Upstate Forever said Monday they have filed a notice that they will sue under the federal Clean Water Act after 60 days if Kinder Morgan Energy Partners Inc. and a subsidiary don't halt ongoing petroleum pollution in waterways near the spill site.
Petroleum is still polluting the environment more than 18 months after the spill – and stream banks “reek of gasoline,’’ said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the groups.
Monday's legal notice, provided to the energy company and government regulators, is part of a federal process that must be followed before a lawsuit can be filed.
Such notices are not common, but are sometimes filed by citizens who claim the government is not enforcing the clean water law. The notice letter comes at a time of criticism by green groups and property rights advocates over Kinder Morgan expansion plans in the Savannah River basin in western South Carolina.
The notice to Kinder Morgan says the company has not cleaned up at least 160,500 gallons of petroleum left over from the spill, discovered in December 2014, at a company site in northwest South Carolina. The notice says 209,000 gallons have been cleaned up, but little has been done this year to complete the environmental work.
Environmentalists say state and federal regulators have not forced the cleanup, but they also say Kinder Morgan Energy Partners Inc. and its subsidiary, Plantation Pipeline, are to blame. The spill is one of the worst in state history, environmentalists say, although it’s about three times smaller than the Colonial Pipeline Co. spill near Greenville about 20 years ago.
Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz defended the cleanup work by Plantation Pipeline. The company has spent more than $4 million on the cleanup so far and disposed of 2,800 tons of petroleum tainted soil, she said in an email.
She said the contamination is not widespread. She also said the Savannah Riverkeeper has been difficult to work with and appears “more interested in publicity and promoting its own agenda than assisting in a timely investigation and remediation of the site.
“Our commitment and comprehensive approach to the full remediation and restoration of this area has been well received by the state and we will continue these efforts, which take time,’’ Ruiz said in an email. “It is not uncommon for remediation activities to proceed over multiple years.’’
The notice letter says contaminants polluting the environment include benzene, a cancer-causing material.
“Kinder Morgan is not doing enough to protect our watershed, and the people who depend on it, from this spill,” Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper, said in a written statement. “There is no record showing they’ve extracted any measurable amount of gasoline since early 2016, despite ongoing pollution that has been flowing from this tributary into the Savannah River for nearly a year.''
The notice letter alleges that Kinder Morgan is testing for pollution in the areas least likely to be contaminated. Environmentalists filed the notice after visiting the site in rural Anderson County two months ago.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is taking the 60-day notice letter “very seriously’’ and intends to meet with Holleman’s group soon, agency spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said in an email Monday night. Harris characterized the spill as “substantial’’ and said the cleanup would be a long-term endeavor.
But while petroleum exceeds safe drinking water standards in groundwater and surface water at the site, DHEC doesn’t know of any adverse impacts on drinking water in the area as a result of the spill, Harris said.
The petroleum pipeline in question runs from Louisiana through northwest South Carolina and up the East Coast. A section of pipe along the route near Belton is blamed for spilling about 370,000 gallons. A pipe rupture caused the spill, the notice says.
Kinder Morgan, headquartered in Houston, is one of the nation's major pipeline companies. It operates about 84,000 miles of pipeline in North America, the notice says.
The company has been at odds with the Savannah Riverkeeper and many landowners for parts of two years over a plan to run a spur from the line in Belton through western South Carolina and south Georgia to Jacksonville, Fla. The company backed off plans after intense opposition and efforts by Georgia and South Carolina lawmakers to stop the project. Opponents said the project would pollute the environment and unduly burden property owners by seizing land. The company denied that.