COLUMBIA, SC One of the worst pipeline spills in state history wasn’t discovered through a sophisticated leak detection system.
It was found by an ordinary citizen who noticed dead vegetation and the powerful smell of gasoline in a rural Upstate community two years ago.
That’s what a state study committee was told Wednesday — and the failure by the Kinder Morgan company to quickly find the leak is an example of why critics say South Carolina should crack down on oil pipeline companies.
“This was a major failure of the system, and who discovered it? Somebody in Belton walking down the street,’’ Greenville lawyer Frank Holleman said during a nearly eight-hour hearing in Columbia.
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Holleman, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, was among a chorus of speakers who said controls on petroleum pipeline companies are too lax in South Carolina. The study committee that held Wednesday’s session is examining whether to recommend tightening state law, a response to Kinder Morgan’s plan last year for a $1 billion oil pipe through South Carolina and Georgia.
Among the complaints, which were not disputed by government regulators:
▪ Oil pipeline companies, despite assurances that sophisticated leak detection systems work, continue to leak petroleum into the environment of South Carolina and other states.
▪ The state’s environmental department has limited authority to oversee operating petroleum pipelines.
▪ Oil pipeline companies don’t go through rigorous siting requirements before they lay new lines.
▪ Oil pipeline companies, unlike natural gas pipe corporations, can seize people’s land with limited state and federal review.
The ability of a private oil pipeline company to condemn land for a new project is a particular sore spot with property rights advocates, forest companies, environmentalists and some state legislators. During testimony Wednesday, they questioned why for-profit oil companies have the right to condemn land without showing a public need. Pipeline companies say they prefer not to condemn land.
A representative of Colonial Pipeline Co., which has a line running through South Carolina’s Upstate, said the petroleum industry is already regulated by state and federal environmental agencies. Pipeline companies have sophisticated leak detection systems and strive to minimize spills from the lines they operate, said Colonial’s Don Gardner, who is a member of the committee.
“We operate under a host of regulations,’’ Gardner said.
The committee that heard testimony includes state lawmakers, oil pipeline interests and state regulators. A state law approved last spring requires the committee to study whether South Carolina needs tighter controls on pipeline companies and to report its findings to the Legislature. The state has two major oil pipelines running through the foothills near Anderson and Greenville.
After Kinder Morgan proposed its new pipeline through South Carolina and Georgia, Palmetto State lawmakers banned oil pipeline companies from condemning land for three years. As early as next summer, the study committee will recommend to lawmakers what should be done.
Petroleum pipelines have stirred passions in communities across the country, with many people complaining that the lines are intrusive and a source of pollution. The hottest issue lately has been in North Dakota, where American Indians oppose a $3.7 billion pipeline through ancestral lands.
Closer to South Carolina, Colonial has drawn fire recently over two pipeline breaks in Alabama, including one that caused an explosion. The company was responsible for the worst pipeline oil spill in South Carolina about 20 years ago — a nearly 1 million gallon spill into the Reedy River near Greenville.
Sharon Richardson, director of Audubon South Carolina, said Kinder Morgan last year wanted to run its pipeline through her organization’s nature preserve near Aiken.
Had the company not backed off of its plan, it could have used the power of “eminent domain,’’ to seize property. That power generally is reserved for governments or entities that need property for a public use, such as a road. She urged the committee to recommend a permanent ban on eminent domain by for-profit companies.
“We vehemently oppose the use (of eminent domain) by companies such as Kinder Morgan whose only motive is for its own gain and to serve the interest of its shareholders,’’ she said.
Holleman, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said there is no need for pipeline companies to retain the power of eminent domain for new lines.
He also said the company’s recent spill in Belton is one of the worst in state history, but is not being cleaned up properly. Research his group has conducted shows that pollution levels actually are increasing in spots. Benzene, a cancer-causing material, for instance, reached 7,850 parts per billion in one place in September. The level was 6,430 parts per billion in August, according to Holleman’s research.
Of the nearly 370,000 gallons that spilled, at least 160,000 gallons still have not been cleaned up from the property in rural Anderson County, he said. Creeks and groundwater are suffering, he said.
Holleman criticized the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for failing to require a more aggressive cleanup plan. His organization has filed formal comments with DHEC to complain about the plan.
“There is no foreseeable end to this pollution,’’ he said. “That tells you these spills occur and that tells you these pipeline companies cannot clean them up. Once that cat is out of the bag, you really can’t fix it.’’