EPD says plume shrinking
COPS leaders question findings, say more test wells needed
BY ZACH MITCHAM
A geologist with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) says scientifically-valid data show that an underground petroleum contaminant plume just south of Danielsville is shrinking as Colonial Pipeline works to clean up its spills. Meanwhile, leaders of a local pipeline watchdog group contend that the EPD is too reliant on corporations policing themselves and that more test wells are needed to draw any true conclusions about the contaminant plume.
James Guentert, a Georgia EPD geologist, said both shallow and deep aquifers in the Colbert Grove Church Road area are showing a decline in hydrocarbon contamination from petroleum spills by Colonial Pipeline.
“Concentrations in both aquifers in general have decreased over the past 10 years of monitoring,” said Guentert.
Guentert said he calculated last year that the square footage of the contaminant plume in the deep aquifer had decreased by approximately 25 percent since remediation work began to clean up the spills.
But not everyone is ready to concede that Colonial-funded findings provide proof that the contamination situation is improving.
“You can’t declare that something is diminishing until you do a 360-degree sample of the contaminant area which hasn’t been done,” said Richard Bennett, a Colbert Grove property owner, and the most outspoken member of Citizens Organized for Pipeline Safety (COPS).
THE HISTORY OF
Colonial Pipeline reported six petroleum spills between 1966-79 at its booster station just south of Danielsville.
But there are no figures on how much petroleum was actually spilled.
“We can’t estimate gallons, but, based upon a scientific examination of the groundwater and the soil at the site, the releases appear to have been relatively small,” Colonial officials said in a written response to questions from The Madison County Journal in 2004.
Approximately 15 years after the last reported spill, benzene, a cancer-causing contaminant, was found in deep residential wells around the booster station in the mid 1990s.
Several residents of the area subsequently sued Colonial, noting health problems that could have been tied to their contaminated well water. The pipeline company has since purchased over 30 homes in the Colbert Grove Church Road area.
A NEW WATER LINE
The company also provided approximately $950,000 to the county industrial authority to run a water line from Madico Park at Hwys. 98 and 172 to remaining homeowners in the Colbert Grove area.
Proponents of the agreement said it was a true bargain, noting that it helped bring water to affected residents without a lengthy legal confrontation with a major petroleum company and allowed the county to expand its water services in the process.
Opponents of the deal maintained that any agreement between the company and the county should have been made in the open with input from Colbert Grove residents actually affected by the spills. Those against the deal also contended that county should have gotten much more from a company that polluted drinking water for a community, whose health was put in jeopardy as a result. Such feelings have been voiced repeatedly at monthly meetings of the Citizens Organized for Pipeline Safety in Madison County (COPS), which is composed primarily of Colbert Grove residents.
As part of the agreement with the IDA, Colonial agreed to pay hookup costs for Colbert Grove residents to the new water line and to cover one year of water bills for residents in the affected area. Homeowners who switched to the new line are expected to begin covering their own water bills this fall. But some residents of the area contend that Colonial should pay their bills for as long as they live on the property, noting that they never had a water bill until their well water was contaminated.
THE REMEDIATION PLAN
After the contamination of residential wells was discovered in the mid 1990s, Colonial implemented a pumping and treatment system to restrict groundwater flow.
The company also began conducting periodic testing of old residential wells and newer test wells.
Colonial Pipeline pays a company, Mill Creek Environmental Services, to conduct tests of the wells in the Colbert Grove area. Mill Creek then presents its findings to the EPD for review.
The tests have shown that the deeper, drilled wells have been the source of most positive findings for benzene in residential wells in the Colbert Grove area. Shallow wells have generally not been affected.
Data collected by Mill Creek this summer show a continued decline in benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and total xylenes (BTEX) in Colbert Grove groundwater.
“In general, concentrations of petroleum constituents are decreasing or are relatively stable in the majority of the wells at this site,” wrote Heather Box, the Colbert Grove project manager for Mill Creek, in a July 17 report to the EPD. “These decreasing trends are evidence that all remediation strategies implemented have been effective in reducing petroleum concentrations in soil and groundwater.”
A DIFFERENT VIEW
Bennett passionately disagrees. He contends that there aren’t enough test wells to draw definitive conclusions. He said that the geology of the area is truly complex and that no one really knows what’s happening deep underground. He said more test wells would help unlock the mystery and help provide an accurate picture of benzene flow in the underground fissures.
Bennett, who has placed signs on Colbert Grove Church Road criticizing Colonial, refers to the pipeline as a “leaking sive” and frequently notes that Colonial was fined $34 million by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Water Act on seven recent occasions by spilling 1.45 million gallons of oil from its 5,500-mile pipeline in five states.
Bennett also contends that the EPD relying on Mill Creek which is paid by Colonial to monitor test wells is a conflict of interest that undermines the integrity of the testing process.
“The EPD has lost all control,” he said. “The whole experiment was controlled from the get go by Colonial Pipeline with the blessing of the EPD. There is no evidence (of the plume diminishing) except the evidence they (Colonial) control.”
The irritation in Guentert’s voice is crystal clear when such criticism is posed. He noted that Mill Creek is state and federally licensed for water data collection and that the data is evaluated by the EPD. He said the data reflect a reduction in the size of the contaminant zone.
“I do believe the data they (Mill Creek) collect is accurate,” said Guentert. “Now how they interpret that data is a bigger question. They could shade it (their written summaries of the data) in one way or another. But that’s where we come in. We assess the data as much as they do. It’s our job to review it (the company’s findings).”
The Mill Creek report is available for public review at the EPD office in Athens off Gaines School Road. The thick notebooks from Mill Creek include maps, data and summary information regarding the contaminant plume.
One local woman contends that the Colonial spill and the EPD’s system of monitoring contamination typify nationwide problems in holding polluters accountable to citizens.
“I believe what is happening nationally with Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay is indicative of how the pipeline has operated in Madison County,” said Jill McElheney, who leads monthly COPS meetings. “There is massive corrosion and lack of maintenance which has finally caught up with BP which is an owner of Colonial Pipeline.”
McElheney, who now lives in Winterville, became interested in environmental issues after her son was diagnosed with leukemia. (He has since recovered.) The family lived next to an Athens business that contaminated their well water. And ever since, McElheney has been outspoken against businesses that pollute the environment.
McElheney has taken an interest in Colbert Grove residents and how they have been affected by Colonial’s spills. She said those residents have repeatedly been ignored by leaders at the local, state and federal levels. McElheney also has a long list of problems with Colonial and the EPD.
“COPS has uncovered serious record keeping problems with Georgia EPD’s case management of Colonial Pipeline, including missing residential well tests that health investigations have been based upon,” said McElheney.
She contends that Colonial-funded scientists may pose one side of the story, but other scientists summoned by COPS present different views.
“COPS consulted a hydrogologist who said fluctuations of the plume could be seasonal related,” said McElheney. ”COPS also consulted with a MIT chemical engineer and attorney specializing in groundwater contamination who advised COPS that they should take legal action against Colonial Pipeline. Two sides, two stories: given what is happening all over the country now with the lack of trust for pipelines, which scientists do you think residents are going to believe?”
COMPANY SAYS IT’S FOCUSED ON SAFETY
Company officials say that safety is Colonial’s number one priority.
“We accomplish this (safety) through many methods and programs,” wrote Colonial representatives in a reply to emailed questions from The Journal. “Some are sophisticated and complex, others are simple....Our control center uses state of the art technology to monitor pipeline operations 24-7. An example of a more complex solution for ensuring pipeline safety is analyzing the data provided by internal inspection devices (smart pigs).”
Criticism levied at pipeline companies is often met with a call for this perspective: moving oil through underground pipelines is safer than any other mode of getting your oil, isn’t it?
Open up Colonial Pipeline’s website and click on “Safety and The Environment” and the company offers this assessment of oil transportation in America.
“When viewed from the standpoint of impact on human life, there is no safer mode for the transportation of liquid petroleum than via pipeline,” company officials said. “In 1995, the United States recorded 44,347 transportation-related fatalities. Out of these fatalities, 632 involved large trucks, 753 involved railroads and 31 involved commercial marine carriers. There were 21 fatalities that resulted from liquids and gas transmission pipeline failures in 1995 and of these, three fatalities resulted from liquid pipeline failures. None resulted from Colonial Pipeline operations.”