Environmental groups sue Kinder Morgan over Belton pipeline spill

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This photo is meant to show petroleum products still present near Brown’s Creek in Anderson County. Three environmental groups, including Greenville’s Upstate Forever, intend to file a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan if it doesn’t finish cleaning up a gasoline spill in Anderson County. Photo by Southern Environmental Law Center.

Environmental groups file notice of federal lawsuit against pipeline owner

Two environmental groups, including Greenville’s Upstate Forever, have filed a federal lawsuit against Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, claiming the company hasn’t done enough to clean up a gasoline spill near Belton in rural Anderson County.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper, calls for Kinder Morgan to pay about $30 million in civil penalties for violating the Clean Water Act.

“Our clean water is our most important resource,” said Upstate Forever Executive Director Andrea Cooper. “Kinder Morgan has had two years to contain its huge gasoline spill, but the company continues to pollute the Upstate’s precious clean water with gasoline pollutants.”

In December 2014, Kinder Morgan’s Plantation Pipeline ruptured and reportedly leaked about 369,600 gallons of gasoline and petroleum products near Lewis Drive north of Belton. The rupture occurred near two streams that flow into Broadway Lake, Lake Secession, Lake Russell and the Savannah River, said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

He added that more than 160,000 gallons of gasoline and petroleum product remain in the surrounding soil, groundwater and area streams.

“Kinder Morgan is responsible for one of the largest pipeline spills in South Carolina history, yet thousands of gallons of gasoline have not been cleaned up,” Holleman said. “It’s well past time for Kinder Morgan to do everything necessary to clean up its spill and stop gasoline from flowing into our water.”

Melissa Ruiz, a spokeswoman for Kinder Morgan, said the company “has taken full responsibility for the spill” and is continuing a “thorough and complete investigation and remediation of the site in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.”

She added that Kinder Morgan has recovered 209,059 gallons of product and collected and properly disposed of about 2,800 tons of petroleum-impacted soil. The company submits monthly reports to DHEC and has spent $4.3 million through September for remediation and repairs.

Kinder Morgan completed a comprehensive site assessment earlier this year that included the installation of monitoring wells and recovery trenches in Brown’s Creek to prevent pollutants from migrating downstream to nearby waterways.

Ruiz said pollutants have not migrated downstream.

Kinder Morgan has also submitted a corrective action plan to DHEC that includes the installation of 49 biosparging wells at the spill site. That system will inject oxygen into the groundwater mixed with pollution and feeds microorganisms that break down contaminants. It should be fully operational by 2017.

“It is not uncommon for remediation activities to proceed over multiple years. As we’ve stated before, we will continue these efforts until no further action is required,” Ruiz said.

The environmental groups are demanding a more effective cleanup effort.

In November, Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper released a public statement claiming that pollution from the ruptured pipeline was getting worse, despite the cleanup efforts.

“Because millions of people depend on the Savannah River watershed, pipeline spills cannot be allowed to go unchecked,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper. “Illegal polluters like Kinder Morgan should be obligated to act quickly and effectively in cases like these to stop their contamination of our clean water.”

Holleman said the company’s sampling reports submitted to DHEC in August revealed pollution levels that were higher than the levels reported in early 2016, before Kinder Morgan started sampling from an area of Brown’s Creek that is located near the pollution source.

He added that Kinder Morgan avoided testing that area of Brown’s Creek until August, choosing to instead sample downstream where Brown’s Creek merges with another creek that dilutes the pollution.

“To say that we ‘avoided’ testing the area closest to the leak is nonsensical,” said Ruiz. “The first priority is to determine how far the product has migrated and to stop further migration. That is standard practice.”

Kinder Morgan first tested the area of Brown’s Creek nearest to the pollution source in August. Those samples revealed water pollution more than 200 times higher than what the company had previously reported to DHEC, Holleman said.

Kinder Morgan’s September testing results revealed a 22 percent increase in benzene, a 35 percent increase in ethylbenzene, a 23 percent increase in toluene, a 15 percent increase in total xylenes and a 12 percent increase in naphthalene.

“These results show that, two years after the spill, Kinder Morgan’s water pollution continues to get worse,” Holleman said.

Ruiz dismissed the assertion, saying, “The claim that these contaminants are getting worse is false, and these sampling reports are being misrepresented by a coalition who simply opposes pipeline infrastructure.”

“The recent reports referenced now include sampling that was taken closer to the source area; we and DHEC already knew the product was there in higher concentrations and would show higher values,” she added.

DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity said that “the concentrations are higher than those historically reported at this site; however, they are typical for release sites where free-phase gasoline is present.”

“To date, Kinder Morgan has been responsive in their efforts to clean up this release. Site rehabilitation will continue until the release no longer poses a risk to human health and the environment,” he added.

Holleman said the Southern Environmental Law Center tries to settle suits before going to trial and that the settlement must include a payment from Kinder Morgan to compensate for environmental damage that the spill has created.

Kinder Morgan currently faces a second federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court regarding the gasoline spill. Scott and Eric Lewis claim the spill has ruined their family’s 350-acre farm on Lewis Drive. Jury selection will begin this spring.

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