US sues Colonial Pipeline for oil spills in nine states

The US Justice Department filed suit against Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline Co., alleging the company violated the Clean Water Act by spilling 3 million gal of oil and petroleum products from its 5,300-mile pipeline into waterways in nine states over a 20-year period. Colonial said it is 'disappointed' in the decision.


The US Justice Department filed suit Nov. 28 against Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline Co., alleging the company violated the Clean Water Act by spilling about 3 million gal of oil and petroleum products from its 5,349-mile pipeline over 20 years.

The lawsuit charges that pipeline corrosion, mechanical damage, and operator error resulted in numerous spills by the pipeline in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey. The suit was filed in US District Court in Atlanta last Tuesday on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

While the CWA's statute of limitations only allows lawsuits to be filed for spills occurring in the past 5 years, Justice lawyers cited the "pattern and practice" of spills occurring over the past two decades. The pipeline "isn't being cared for in the way that prevailing standards in the law require," said a Justice spokeswoman.

In June 1996, more than 950,000 gal of diesel fuel spilled into the Reedy River near Simpsonville, SC, killing 35,000 fish and dispersing oil 34 miles downstream. The Justice Department filed a misdemeanor charge in South Carolina US District Court against Colonial, alleging Colonial violated the CWA when it failed to exercise reasonable care, leading to a pipeline rupture.

Justice said that spill is believed to be the sixth largest in US history. Colonial Pipeline pled guilty in 1999 to federal charges over that incident.

The new lawsuit asks the court to order Colonial Pipeline to cover exposed and shallow pipe; inspect for and repair corrosion and cracks promptly and in accordance with industry standards; and to upgrade and maintain its cathodic protection system and leak detection strategy and system. Justice also is seeking significant civil penalties from Colonial Pipeline under the Clean Water Act. The act authorizes civil penalties of up to $25,000/day of violation prior to January 1997, and $27,500/day for each day thereafter, or $1,000/bbl of oil spilled or $3,000/bbl in the case of "gross negligence".

Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker said the company was "disappointed" with the lawsuit, adding that Colonial has been working "very hard" with Justice to reach a settlement. Baker added that Colonial paid more than $13.5 million in damages to the federal and state governments for the Reedy River spill.

Since the Reedy River spill, Baker said, Colonial has changed its top management and made safety and maintenance the "absolute number one priority," cutting its operator error incidents 80% over the past 2 years. Baker described the causes of past spills as a combination of operator error and pipeline failure.

During a 5-year probationary period following the Reedy River incident, Colonial was required to develop and implement an environmental compliance program to prevent and detect problems on its entire system. The court also required Colonial to make presentations to national pipeline associations regarding pipelines' Clean Water Act obligations.

Meanwhile, Colonial completed the first phase of its capacity increase project on Line 2, a distillate petroleum products pipeline stretching from Houston to Greensboro, NC. Colonial expanded the capacity on 786 miles of that line, increasing throughput by 144,000 b/d, or 60%, by adding motors, pumps, and other equipment.

The second phase of the capacity enhancement project will be completed over the next several days, Colonial said. Total design capacity will reach 1.1 million b/d once the project is completed.

Colonial is owned by Unocal Corp., with 23.44%; BP, with 17.96%; Equilon Enterprises LLC, with 16.12%; Citgo Petroleum Corp., with 15.79%; Conoco Inc., with 8.53%; Phillips Petroleum Co., with 8.02%; Koch Industries Inc., with 7.3%; and Marathon Oil Co., with 2.82%.

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