A settlement is possible in the federal lawsuit filed against Kinder Morgan by local environmental groups, but the two sides remain deeply divided over how best to clean up the company’s 369,000-gallon gasoline leak northwest of Belton.
Upstate Forever, Savannah Riverkeeper and Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in December under the Clean Water Act. They demand the full cleanup of the damage wrought when the Plantation Pipe Line ruptured amid several hundred acres of farmland along Lewis Drive in December 2014. They further claim that the corrective action plan that Kinder Morgan has submitted to the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control wouldn’t restore the affected area to its previous condition.
The gasoline odor at the site remains unmistakable after two years. PVC retention wells stub out from the ground all across the 350-plus acres. Work crews and tanker trucks are daily sights, and a treatment facility is being built on land Plantation bought in 2015 from the Jameson family, the only people displaced by the leak. Plantation Pipe Line is wholly owned subsidiary of Kinder Morgan.
Most of the affected farmland is owned by Scott and Eric Lewis, who are pursuing their own federal lawsuit against Kinder Morgan. Both lawsuits allege years of poor maintenance practices on the Plantation line contributed to the leak and subsequent environmental damage.
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Kinder Morgan has never denied responsibility for the leak. CH2M, the Raleigh environmental engineering firm hired by the Houston-based pipeline operator for the cleanup work, and its subcontractors have been extracting gasoline from the soil and groundwater since early 2015 and report regularly to DHEC, two parts of the company’s $5.9 million effort so far to undo the ecological damage to the land and nearby Brown’s Creek. The reporting indicates that more than 200,000 gallons of gasoline mixed with groundwater has been pumped out of the ground over the last two years.
The plaintiffs estimate that 170,000 gallons of gasoline and its toxic byproducts — including benzene, naphthalene and toluene — remain in the soil and groundwater around the site. Company officials dispute that estimate as being too high, but they are quick to agree that contamination is still a major problem.
Some of those pollutants have washed down into nearby Brown’s Creek, which runs just north of the spot where the Plantation leak happened. Anderson County Stormwater Management officials required contractors to erect silt fencing near the top of the creek bank to keep more contaminated soil and surface water from washing down the hill and into the creek.
Oil containment booms float around a beaver dam separating the creek from the Lewis Drive road bed, and there are more booms on the creek where it emerges on the other side of the road. The creek continues west until it meets with another stream to form Broadway Creek, the primary tributary for Broadway Lake.
There have been no signs of contamination downstream from the cleanup site, but SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman said that could change when and if flooding or some other weather event churns up contaminated sediments and washes them downstream.
Health department officials expect the cleanup to last into the foreseeable future. Department spokesman Robert Yanity was noncommittal when contacted for an assessment of the cleanup operation thus far, as well as the department’s opinion of the CAP submitted by Kinder Morgan.
“DHEC has overseen and continues to oversee the assessment, monitoring and remediation of the release,” said Yanity. “Kinder-Morgan has submitted a corrective action plan for this release, which was public noticed. DHEC continues to oversee site rehabilitation and is reviewing input received on the CAP.”
The company is also finishing construction of an on-site “biosparging” system. That relatively new technology entails using microbes and oxygenation to break down contaminants present in groundwater and soil. In essence, the microbes are injected into the ground to eat the gasoline and its byproducts. Company officials expect the new system to be up and running within the next four to six weeks.
Holleman welcomes the biosparging, but he also wants the dozens of retention wells dotting the site pumped out more often. He cited CH2M’s reports to the health department, which shows that pumping at the site has been less frequent over the last year.
“We want them to be more aggressive in managing those wells where they suck out the gasoline,” Holleman said. “We’ve had one report that there is gas 6 feet thick in one of the wells. We think they should continue removing gasoline product from this system as long as it is removable.”
“Biosparging is not perfect, but it does help pump oxygen into underground ecology,” Holleman added. “It’s not the perfect way to deal with 170,000 gallons of gasoline, but it helps.”
Mike Hanak, Kinder Morgan’s director of environmental health and safety, defended recently pumping efforts. He said the wells are being pumped out twice a week now, to capitalize on the lower water tables in the area due to the Upstate’s extended drought. Less water means less dilution of the gasoline floating on top and easier extraction, he explained. But biosparging would be more effective over the long term, he said.
Holleman criticized Kinder Morgan’s testing along the creek, contending that the levels of benzene and other contaminants are far too high and need to addressed, according to sampling done by Savannah Riverkeeper in August. He said the company needs to do a better job of keeping more fuel from leaking into the creek, and said its sampling practices have all but avoided the spot on the creekbed where that fuel is seeping into the water.
“The gasoline pollutants are entering the stream from the spill site, after two years,” Holleman said. “In recent months, extremely high levels have been found. This pollution is the result of uncontrolled gasoline pollution flowing into the waterway.”
Hanak disputes that allegation. He said the spot in question has been contained with booms, and they are testing other parts of the creek to see if the toxins are spreading.
“The levels aren’t climbing,” Hanak said. “We have collected 305 samples out there and 98 percent didn’t have any concentrations, but there are some limited impacts. The state requires us to make sure it (contamination) has not migrated downstream and it hasn’t. You typically don’t sample where you already know it exists. It’s isolated and not migrating.”
Hanak agreed that contamination remains a serious problem, but he emphasized that a cleanup operation of this magnitude is going to take years to complete. Company officials insist they are doing everything that is supposed to be done, and will end up spending much more than the $5.9 million on remediation.
Holleman said cases like this one don’t often go to trial because defendants and plaintiffs usually settle for one reason or another, but so far the two sides haven’t come up with any kind of agreement.
“There have been discussions about that option with the SELC … but certainly nothing is imminent,” said Ric Morton, the Greenville-based attorney retained by Kinder Morgan.
“We have had preliminary settlement discussions and always want to resolve cases in a way that protects our natural resources,” said Holleman. “So far, kinder Morgan has refused to do what is needed to clean up this massive spill and compensate the waterway for the continuing harm it is doing to Anderson county’s water resources.”
The Clean Water Act suit is pending before Judge Henry Herlong in U.S. District Court in Greenville. The CAP can be read at http://upstateforever.org/pdfs/other/2016.09.01_CorrectiveActionPlanLewisDr.pdf.