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Huntersville pipeline cleanup continues, three years after major spill

Mike Harvey
An aerial photo from September 2020 shows Colonial Pipeline contractors working on the spill.

This story appeared first in reporter David Boraks' weekly email newsletter. Sign up here to get the latest news straight to your inbox first.

Noting an anniversary: Three years ago this past Monday, Aug. 14, a couple of high schoolers riding an ATV discovered gasoline bubbling up out of the ground along the Colonial Pipeline at the Oehler Nature Preserve in Huntersville. The company initially estimated that about 63,000 gallons were spilled. Estimates have kept growing since then, and Colonial now puts the figure at 2 million gallons, as of July.

That makes it the largest gasoline spill on land in the US.

The company has settled regulatory actions with both federal and state officials so far, and costs of the cleanup have mounted. After North Carolina environmental regulators sued Colonial, the company agreed to a nearly $5 million penalty and pledged to increase testing at the site and to develop a long-term cleanup plan.

Another concern has been whether the same kind of defective repairs that led to the Huntersville spill also exist elsewhere along the 5,500 miles of pipeline. In a 2021 agreement with federal pipeline safety regulators, Colonial agreed to evaluate and improve its leak detection system and maintenance practices along the pipeline's entire 5,500 miles.

In June, state regulators gave Colonial the go-ahead to build a wastewater treatment plant on site so it doesn't have to truck contaminated water to another location. It will spend $23 million to build the plant, and then pipe the treated water into a nearby creek.

The cleanup is expected to continue for years.

Listen to my 2021 interview with the two local high school students who discovered the spill here.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.