News from Madison County...

OCTOBER 20, 2004

Madison County

Madison County

Pipeline officials are quick to argue that pushing flammable fuels through pipes like the ones that run through Madison County is a safer mode of transportation than above-ground methods like shipping, trucking or railway. Complain about a pipeline and the first response from a pipeline proponent is likely: “Would you prefer to be boxed in by even more 18-wheelers hauling fuel next to you on the interstate, or would you prefer more petroleum transported in the ground beneath you?” Or, maybe: “Would you prefer no gas for your car or pipelines under your feet? Choose one.”
No doubt, transporting fuel in any fashion carries its risks, some methods more than others. And the most-publicized petroleum transportation disaster in U.S. history was, of course, not a pipeline spill. Rather, it was the Exxon Valdez fiasco in March 1989 in Alaska when a tanker grounded at a reef and spilled some 10.8 million gallons of crude oil.
But pipeline critics say that just because underground pipes are out of sight, doesn’t mean those lines keep the public out of danger. In fact, since pipes are buried out of sight, there’s an obvious challenge to effective oversight by the public. At least with the Valdez disaster, spilled fuel was clearly visible on the ocean’s surface. But a pipeline spill may never be seen.
And with such a high demand for petroleum in the U.S., pipelines have an astounding amount of fuel moving through them each day on lines that are sometimes decades old.
For instance, Colonial moves more than 95 million gallons of product every day through its 5,519 miles of pipeline.
And spills do happen, not just from Colonial lines.
During the 1990s, major reportable spills — designated as those involving at least 2,100 gallons — occurred about four times a week and totaled close to six million gallons a year, according to an investigative series by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
According to an Office of Pipeline Safety database, (as cited in an in-depth 2001 pipeline feature story by Cox Newspapers) an estimated 67 million gallons of crude oil, gasoline and other products spilled or leaked from holes in U.S. pipelines during the 1990s.
But Colonial, in particular, has garnered considerable attention for its mishaps, especially for three large spills in the 1990s. The most notable was a 1996 rupture in a 36-inch pipe that released nearly one million gallons of diesel fuel into the Reedy River, near Fork Shoals, S.C. There was a 1993 Colonial Pipeline leak in Virginia that dumped more than 300,000 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Potomac and a 1991 leak near Spartanburg, S.C., that released an estimated 562,000 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Enoree River. There have been a number of smaller spills as well.
In February 1999, Colonial pled guilty to criminal charges in connection with the Reedy River, S.C., spill and was ordered to pay a $7 million fine and serve a five-year term of probation.
In April 2003, Colonial was fined $34 million by the federal Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency — the civil penalty was the largest paid by a company in EPA history.
According to a press release about the fine from the Department of Justice, the “government maintained that pipeline corrosion, mechanical damage, and operator error in seven recent spills resulted in the release of approximately 1.45 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products into the environment, including numerous rivers, streams and wetlands.”
Colonial admits to at least six spills at the Danielsville Booster Station (DBS). But the company maintains that none have occurred in the past 25 years. The Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has records of one spill in 1966, two in 1975, two in 1977 and one in 1979 at the booster station.
However, contamination of well water from the spills wasn’t discovered until 1994, 15 years after the last reported spill and some 28 years after the first documented release, leaving some to question how long people in the area around the booster station had been drinking water laced with benzene.
The discovery came late in 1994, when Colonial found benzene contamination in its own well at the booster station. Further tests showed contamination in residential wells surrounding the facility.
Colonial offered no estimate when asked how much petroleum was actually spilled in the six documented incidents.
“The exact quantity released in these spills is unknown,” Colonial officials wrote, in written response to a Journal questionnaire earlier this year (published in its entirety March 3). “...We can’t estimate in gallons, but based upon a scientific examination of the groundwater and the soil at the site, the releases appear to have been relatively small.”
Documents from a 1997 lawsuit in Madison County Superior Court filed by Johnny Kinley and his family, who lived on Ivey Springs Road, indicate that at the time of the suit, there were 66 privately-owned residences within a one-half mile radius of the Danielsville Booster Station (DBS) and that many of the private water supply wells in that zone had been contaminated by Colonial. The Kinley’s well, for instance, had not only benzene, but also other contaminants: lead, ethyl-benzene and naphthalene.
While the suit stated the obvious — that the plaintiff’s water had been contaminated — there was also the contention that the homeowners around the spill area weren’t notified of the spills when they happened.
“Colonial, knowing of the leaks, spills, or other releases of the petroleum products from the pipelines and or the Danielsville Booster Station (DBS), and knowing that the petroleum products would eventually migrate through the soils into the groundwater, failed to notify persons living in the vicinity of the releases, including the Kinleys, that the releases had occurred,” wrote attorney David Pope, who also represented six other families in the Colbert Grove area who sought legal aid after finding out about the contamination.
Colonial contends that it notified residents when it determined that contamination had gone beyond company property, but not when the spills occurred.
“We contacted residents we thought might have been impacted when we learned there was contamination beyond our property,” Colonial officials wrote to The Journal. “That occurred in the mid 1990s.”
The suit also shows that the company sought to separate property owners of contaminated property from the attorney they hired to represent them. A letter from Colonial to the Kinleys and six other families represented by Pope stated that the company would shut down any negotiations unless they dropped their lawyer. Pope had insisted that negotiations be continued only with legal counsel supporting the property owners.
“We regret to inform you that while we are desirous of continuing direct personal negotiations with any property owner whose property has suffered any nature of contamination from our business operations, we cannot do so as long as you are represented by counsel,” said a Colonial attorney in a 1996 letter addressed to the Kinleys and six other families represented by Pope. “...The only basis upon which we would re-open communications directly with you is if we receive a letter signed and dated by you as an individual property owner stating that you are no longer represented by Mr. Pope or any other counsel...”
The Kinley suit ended abruptly in August of 1997 when the case was dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning that a settlement had been reached. No details about the settlement are included in the case file and the agreement included a confidentiality clause.
While there have been reports of health problems in the Colbert Grove area over the years, proving that a pipeline leak is the actual source of health abnormalities can be a daunting prospect.
For instance, for a person to prove that a pipeline leak made them sick, they’d have to first establish a link between their property and a spill, a legal hurdle that many in the Colbert Grove area could clear.
A person would then need to show that they had suffered benzene exposure. According to Wilbur, the health scientist with the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry in Atlanta, there are “a lot of tests to determine benzene exposure,” but the most promising one is known by a tongue-twister name: The S-phenylmercapturic acid test, or also known as the “S-Test.”
The “S-Test” is a urinary exam that Wilbur said “correlates pretty well with lower levels of exposure,” by detecting benzene metabolites.
If benzene exposure can be determined as a source of an illness, then a plaintiff would need to prove that contamination was the source of the exposure. Attorneys for a company could cloud the issue, however, if a person smokes or lives with a smoker or has any other contact with benzene on a regular basis.
On the flip side, companies often don’t want to match up with a family that has suffered a loss or serious illness in court, knowing that a jury may be sympathetic to their plight.
So lawsuits involving contamination issues quite frequently end in settlements.
In looking at the Colbert Grove area, Colonial officials contend that there is just no evidence that the spills at the booster station made anyone sick.
“Our past efforts and contacts with residents in the potentially impacted area have given us no reason to believe anyone is sick because of this situation,” wrote Colonial officials in response to Journal questions.
One family that has been hit particularly hard by illness in recent years in the Colbert Grove area is the McDaris family, whose home is located just a stone’s throw from the pipeline on Colbert Grove Church Road and several hundred yards from the booster station. Mike McDaris lost both his son and father in recent years to leukemia.
He admits he can’t prove that the contamination in the area caused the deaths of his father and son, but McDaris can’t let go of the possibility that the petroleum released into the water in the area had something to do with their passing — though Colonial tested his well and told him it was not contaminated.
“I think it’s a high possibility,” said McDaris. “I don’t have any hospital records or anything. And they (Colonial) got a hundred lawyers to my one.”
He said he’s very frustrated that no one seems to care about his situation. And he said he’s upset that his property is not worth what it ought to be because of the contamination.
“The way I feel is, I think these people (Colonial) have no care about other people’s lives; they’re all about the money,” said McDaris. “I’m not about the money. I just don’t want anybody to die and get sick. People ought to know about what’s going on.”
Colonial has settled with a number of families in the Colbert Grove area in recent years by buying their property. In fact, over 30 families in the Colbert Grove area have settled with Colonial Pipeline for petroleum contamination on their land. Colonial officials wouldn’t give a number earlier this year on exactly how many homes they’ve bought from county residents with contaminated land. But according to records from the county tax commissioner’s office, Colonial paid just over $126,000 in taxes last year on 37 properties, including its booster station. Many of those properties are former homes where contamination was discovered.
The Charping family was one household forced to move due to contamination. Clara Charping and her former husband lived with their kids on about five acres near the booster station. Charping said their well water was making the whole family sick at their stomach and that it would burn their eyes when they took a shower.
Charping still lives in the county near Ila. She said she was not happy about moving and that she wanted to stay where she was. But she was also scared of contamination near the booster station.
“I had all my flowers and roses there, but I was scared to move them and get their roots in the soil where I was going,” said Charping.
Charping said Colonial offered to buy their property, but never told them exactly what was wrong with their water.
“They never really did give us an explanation,” she said.
One current Colbert Grove Church Road resident said she’s tired of hearing “different stories from different people on how safe or unsafe the water is,” adding that “One guy said he wouldn’t get in our shower.” The resident said learning about contamination in the area “scared you because you wondered what kind of danger your family is in. Because we raised three kids on that water.”
One local property owner who refuses to settle with Colonial Pipeline is Richard Bennett, who had planned to move from Athens to his family farm off Colbert Grove Church Road until benzene contamination was detected on his land.
Bennett, who owns approximately 80 acres off Colbert Grove Church Road, maintains that Colonial will say or do anything to avoid facing its history of spills and the negative affect on the lives of those who live near the pipeline. So he is constantly on the phone with local politicians, press members and citizens sharing his anger about Colonial and what he calls the pervasive cowardly avoidance of “the real truth about all the spills.” Bennett’s in-your-face attitude toward Colonial, local leaders and anyone who supports the pipeline is evident in the skull and crossbone signs he put up on his property on Colbert Grove Church Road, such as the one that reads: “Toxic air, water, soil, 32 families moved, 84 to go, 20 million + in damages, who will help us? Thanks, Colonial.”
“I’m trying to warn all the people that there is a bad problem still underfoot and getting worse,” said Bennett. “The citizens of this county have been fooled not only by Colonial, but by many of their so-called leaders.”
He said there is still plenty Colonial should do.
“The affected landowners need damage settlements for all their losses,” said Bennett. “We need compensation for our continued exposure to benzene and the other toxic chemicals that they’ve spilled. The sick families need immediate and thorough medical examinations and care. The spill sites and surrounding areas need at least another 75 test wells so we can start trying to find out how many miles this contamination really goes. Incredibly, the pipeline is in charge of their own water sampling. Colonial needs to reimburse all the landowners that have spent thousands of dollars on property taxes for land the spills have devalued or made worthless for at least the last 10 years. For a company that has profits of over $300 million per year, how pathetic is that? They knowingly put this burden on the backs of all the taxpayers affected out there.”
Bennett’s brother and father both died with heart problems. He can’t prove any link between contamination of the family land and their deaths, but he said he can’t dismiss the possibility that they’re related.
The Colbert Grove land owner said he still hasn’t sold the family land because Colonial hasn’t offered a fair price.
That drew a roll of the eyes from Colonial manager of community relations Grace McDougald in an interview earlier this year.
“We’ve made more than a fair offer,” she said.
McDougald said that Colonial has acted above-board in its dealings with those affected by the spills and gone out of its way to ensure that those on contaminated land get a fair deal.
While Bennett speaks about the loss of land value in the area, county records show that Bennett has purchased property in the area since the contamination was discovered. Bennett reacts indignantly to the assertion that he is trying to milk Colonial for money and that the land purchase after the contamination discovery is proof.
“That’s a total lie,” he said, adding that he bought the property because a family that lived on the land had essentially been “terrorizing” the neighborhood and that they needed to be moved.
Bennett said that anyone pushing the “land speculator” theory about him is seeking to scapegoat him in hopes of avoiding the real issue, that “many people in power in this county have either looked the other way, played dumb, or have actually helped in the cover up of this situation.”
He said people should take “this disaster seriously and quit making all those silly excuses why they can’t help their fellow citizens.” Bennett says the only local leaders who have been on top of the Colonial issue are District 5 commissioner Bruce Scogin and District 4 commissioner Melvin Drake, who have made personal visits to residents of Colbert Grove to talk about the Colonial issue.
“We’ve lived with this cloud over our head for the last eight years,” said Bennett. “We have no idea when it will ever end, if at all. It’s affected a lot of people. Can I or anybody else prove it against a billion dollar Goliath? Probably no, but then again, when you do your research and start connecting the dots, that’s a different story.”
Bennett contends that the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) does a terrible job safeguarding the citizens of the Colbert Grove area, since the EPD does, in fact, leave the monitoring of the contamination plume up to Colonial, which hires a private company to perform water testing.
A look at the annual EPD Hazardous Site Index for contaminated sites in Georgia shows that hazardous sites are grouped into one of four categories, with “Class I” being the most dangerous and “Class IV” being the least. There were 539 sites listed in the 2003 index. Oddly, the Colbert Grove contaminant plume — or area of affected groundwater — has not been included in the EPD’s annual index. In their explanation of why the Colbert Grove site was not included in the index, the EPD responded to a Journal questionairre that “petroleum releases are regulated differently because they are easier to clean up than many other regulated substance releases; they generally take less time to complete and there are so many of them.”
But test wells in the Colbert Grove area still test positive for benzene 25 years after the last reported spill.
Bennett said that test wells should be placed on the west side of Hwy. 29 to show whether the contamination is spreading. He said that he was promised that the plume wouldn’t extend beyond tributaries surrounding the contaminant site, but that the plume has, in fact, spread.
Colonial contends that Bennett’s assertions lack any basis in fact. They say they have a handle on the contaminant plume and that there is no evidence that the plume is spreading. In response to Journal questions, the company stated that “18 deep wells and 11 shallow wells of Colonial’s approximately 80 monitor wells have detected the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene.”
“Colonial’s system of wells, located specifically based on underground water flow, provides the company and state environmental officials a method of monitoring the impacted area,” Colonial officials wrote. “Wells are positioned throughout the site and the surrounding area, including the area of Hwy. 29. Samples from these wells are analyzed regularly and results are reported to the Georgia Geologic Survey.”
EPD officials said self-policing of contaminant sites like Colonial’s is not a perfect system, but that it “works well.”
“Nationwide, all environmental programs are centered about self-monitoring with routine inspection from regulatory agencies,” EPD officials wrote in response to Journal questions. “This system is not perfect, but works well. The EPD has a strong need for additional staff in all areas of our responsibility.”
EPD officials first responded to questions from The Journal about the Colbert Grove contamination by sending the paper a June 2003 letter from former EPD director Harold Reheis to Bennett.
Reheis said that Colonial’s “pump and treat remediation system” for the contaminant site has been expanded at the EPD’s instruction from “two pumping wells to nine pumping wells to accelerate corrective action.” He said Colonial has “treated 12,000,000 gallons of benzene-contaminated groundwater” from the “bedrock aquifer (fractured rock.)”
Reheis said that benzene plume maps show some “minor contraction and expansion within the general plume outline.” He said the plume “measures 3,200 feet in the east-west direction and up to 2,200 feet in the north-south direction” beyond the booster station site.
Bennett said that “contraction and expansion” is a Texas two-step way of saying the contamination is “spreading.”
Reheis said that’s not the case, contending that the “pattern of benzene detections at your (Bennett’s) property does not indicate a general expansion of the plume of contaminated groundwater or a worsening of contamination within the plume.”
Reheis said the “contraction and expansion” is “characteristic of a location near a plume margin where the effects of season changes in groundwater flow patterns are more noticeable.”
Colonial officials admit that the company has had problems, but they contend that the business was transformed after the Reedy River spill of 1996, with new management, new pipeline inspection technology and a new attitude.
“I was very disappointed (with the company) before 1996,” said Colonial government affairs manager Sam Whitehead, who has been employed with Colonial for 35 years. “I classify all of that (previous problems) as a legacy. I feel as if I’m working for an entirely different company even though there is the lingering history.”
He qualified the spill situation around the booster station as one of the legacy issues the company wants to clear up.
“There is no ongoing release from our facility,” he said. “The area is impacted due to past product releases from station piping and equipment. We confirmed that all necessary repairs had been made at the time the releases were detected.”
Colonial contends that it is a company with integrity and a commitment to safety.
“Operating the pipeline safely is Colonial’s number one priority,” Colonial officials said. “We accomplish this through many methods and programs. Some are sophisticated and complex, others are simple.”
McDougald said that the pipes can be maintained indefinitely. Age is not an issue.
“If steel is properly maintained, then there is not a lifespan” she said. “An example is the Golden Gate Bridge.”
McDougald and Whitehead also point out the company’s use of robotic devices or “smart pigs” to perform in-line inspection. The devices are named “pigs” because when they were first used they squealed as they went through the line.
IDA records show that Colonial was in negotiations with former industrial authority chairman John Scoggins in 2001 on running a water line from Madico Park to the Colbert Grove area.
But the issue lay dormant — at least politically — for several years until developers sued the county for the right to locate a subdivision near the contaminated land.
Bennett appeared before the commissioners to oppose a rezoning for a subdivision off Colbert Grove Church Road, saying that it would be ridiculous to approve a new neighborhood in a contaminated area. But the attorney for the developers said that approving the rezoning would help put pressure on Colonial to fund a water line to the area.
The commissioners approved the rezoning, but BOC member Scogin soon admitted that he regretted that decision and wrote a letter in this newspaper discussing the need to hold Colonial accountable for the pollution they brought to the Colbert Grove community. Soon after, he began to meet one-on-one with those who live around the booster station and said that he felt an obligation to make sure that the people in the area were treated fairly.
“No citizen of Madison County had anything to do with their water being contaminated, the erosion of their property values, or the possible health risks they face daily,” wrote Scogin. “They deserve fresh water from a steady and reliable source. They deserve a clean environment. They deserve to know when they can expect both. They’ve waited nine long years.”
After Scogin’s letter, Colonial officials began meeting with industrial authority members to resume talks about a water line to the Colbert Grove area. The industrial authority handled the negotiations because it is the group that county commissioners have put in charge of water operations in the county.
The negotiations were non-quorum gatherings of the IDA and Colonial representatives — meaning they could legally be closed to the public, and a Journal reporter was turned away when he tried to attend one meeting.
An agreement was eventually reached between Colonial and the industrial authority. The pipeline company agreed to pay up to $950,000 for a water line from Madico Industrial Park to the Colbert Grove area.
The Colonial deal was no exception to the contentious nature of water and growth issues in the county in recent years. While few people ever attend an IDA meeting, the group is frequently talked about in political discussions. And views are vastly divided.
Some in the county have adamantly supported the IDA’s efforts to expand water services to facilitate growth, saying that the group is truly working to develop the county’s commercial base and lower the burden on taxpayers, bravely taking political heat in the process. Others have criticized the group, saying that it is too powerful for an appointed board and that it is in the pocket of developers and ignores rural concerns.
The Colonial water line deal certainly included a growth-versus-rural aspect, because placement of a proposed line could change the outlook of the Hwy. 172 corridor.
Industrial authority members stressed at the time of the deal that their intent was to get the best possible deal for the citizens of the Colbert Grove area and the county as a whole. IDA chairman Tom Joiner summed up the authority’s position at a meeting this year, noting that the county could engage in a knock-down, drag-out battle with an oil company legal team that could last years and lead to little financial benefit — as seen in a Tennessee contamination case — or it could accept a deal and try to help the county improve its water services.
The authority looked beyond the Colbert Grove contamination area and agreed to use the nearly $1 million in Colonial funds as part of a greater, approximately $2 million plan to upgrade county water services as a whole by linking Danielsville, Madico, Colbert and South Madison water systems with 12-inch lines.
The water project was divided into two portions: “Division A” and “Division B,” with the first part being a water line from Madico Park to the Colbert Grove contamination zone and the second part being the major water expansion linking existing systems. The “Division A” portion of the project has already begun, with the “Division B” part set to start soon.
Critics of the “Division B” plan have said that in deciding where to put water lines, the IDA actually decided where growth will go — since “growth follows water” — and that the Hwy. 172 corridor is not the area designated for growth in the county comprehensive land use plan. Scogin has spoken against a Hwy. 172 route and said at one meeting that as a commissioner he won’t approve subdivisions that are proposed in that corridor.
A line is being laid in the ground to the contaminated property, but Bennett said a water line funded by Colonial is just not enough. He said that forcing people who live in a contaminated area to pay for water from a new line is wrong.
“That’s called extortion in my neck of the woods,” he said.
Bennett believes Colonial should cover the cost of water bills for Colbert Grove residents, adding that $950,000 for the water line is “pocket change” for them. And he questions a clause in the agreement that requires notification to Colonial for any new well in a three-mile radius of their property. He points out that Colonial also stands to recoup costs of purchasing property from homeowners if the land can be sold once a water line is installed.
“Colonial should have to pay the water bills for all of the contaminated families until there is a settlement or a clean up, or preferably both,” said Bennett. “...It’s almost like it’s your fault your land was in the way of their toxic plume. We’re definitely nothing more than collateral damage to their way of doing business.”
Bring up Colonial contamination and opinions vary. There is clear annoyance from some who seem to feel that press coverage has gone overboard, that the issue is old news and irrelevant to any current debate, that the water line should put an end to complaining, that monitoring the contaminant plume is a state and federal issue, that any remaining property problems are between local residents and the company and should not include any local government involvement.
On the flip side, there’s the argument that as long as there’s a plume of petroleum contaminants in the county, then local residents should take notice and their leadership should assume some responsibility in watching over that plume, since the EPD relies so heavily on corporate self-policing.
Whatever opinions are drawn, the Colonial issue highlights at least one fundamental truth: talk oil transport on any scale, global or local, and there are intricate political stories beneath the surface with conflicting perspectives forming a volatile mix, burning indefinitely.

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