Environmental groups continue fight against Kinder Morgan after Fourth Circuit revives federal lawsuit

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The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, April 12, ruled that Greenville-based nonprofit Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper can proceed with their federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against Kinder Morgan Energy Partners.

“Upstate Forever’s central mission is the protection of our region’s clean water, and this decision allows us to ensure that Anderson County’s clean water is protected from Kinder Morgan’s pipeline spill and any others that may occur in the future,” said Andrea Cooper, executive director of Upstate Forever, in a statement.

Last year, Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan, claiming the Houston-based pipeline operator had violated the Clean Water Act when a rupture in the Plantation Pipeline leaked about 370,000 gallons of gasoline and petroleum products near Lewis Drive north of Belton in 2014.

The suit claims the spill has seeped into two streams that flow into Broadway Lake, Lake Secession, Lake Russell, and the Savannah River. In 2017, a U.S. District Court dismissed the suit, which calls for Kinder Morgan to pay more than $30 million in civil penalties.

The case will now return to the U.S. District Court, according to Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, the nonprofit law firm representing Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper.

“This decision is a win for clean water and a win for the Belton community in Anderson County,” Holleman said in a statement. “Local citizens can now ask the court to require Kinder Morgan to stop the petroleum pollution of Anderson County’s waters that flow from Belton to the Savannah River.”

Melissa Ruiz, director of corporate communications for Kinder Morgan, said her company is “certainly disappointed with the two-to-one ruling from the panel.”

“This decision appears to conflict with other Appellate Court decisions, resulting in inconsistent interpretations of the scope of the Clean Water Act. We are evaluating our options on the best course of action going forward,” she added.

Kinder Morgan currently submits monthly reports to the state and has spent more than $4 million for remediation and repairs, according to Ruiz.

Last year, for instance, the company installed monitoring wells and recovery trenches in Brown’s Creek to prevent pollutants from migrating downstream. It also installed more than 40 biosparging wells at the spill site. The wells inject oxygen into the polluted groundwater and feed microorganisms that break down contaminants.

Kinder Morgan has recovered more than 220,000 gallons of gasoline and excavated and disposed of more than 2,800 tons of gasoline-impacted soil offsite since the spill was discovered in 2014, according to Ruiz.

Shelley Robbins, energy and state policy director at Upstate Forever, said the company’s cleanup effort has “failed” and that more than 100,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel remain in the surrounding soil, groundwater, and area streams.

“Pumping air into the wells and then bubbling the stream is not doing the job,” Robbins said. “Unless effective additional action is taken, this spill will be polluting the river system for years to come.” 

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