ATLANTA — Fuel supplies in at least five states are threatened by a gasoline pipeline spill in Alabama, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered the company responsible to take corrective action before the fuel starts flowing again.
Colonial Pipeline Co. must conduct testing and analysis on the failed section of the pipeline, according to the department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency, which is investigating the spill in rural Alabama.
The company has acknowledged that between 252,000 gallons and 336,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from a pipeline near Helena, Ala., since the spill was first detected Sept. 9. It's unclear when the spill actually started. The pipeline section that failed runs from Mississippi to Atlanta.
The agency said the spill is "within an unusually sensitive ecological area" and it ordered Colonial to take action "to protect the public, property and the environment from potential hazards."
"The department will remain on site to carry out its investigation, and make sure the operator is taking the necessary steps to prevent any future incidents," agency administrator Marie Therese Dominguez said in a statement.
In a statement Saturday, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based company said repair work had begun in an effort to return the pipeline to service "as rapidly and safely as possible."
The company said it is shipping as much gasoline as possible on its distillate mainline, Line 2, in order to mitigate the impact of the pipeline that has been shut down. Colonial earlier said most of the leaked gasoline is contained in a retention pond near the city of Helena and there's no public safety concern.
Chattanooga is no stranger to spills tied to the Colonial Pipeline Co. over the last few decades.
In 1979, the Chattanooga Times reported on a 300,000-gallon Colonial oil spill at what was then the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant. The area is now home to Volkswagen Chattanooga and other suppliers and manufacturers and to the Enterprise South Nature Park.
At the time, Ted Barnett, regional manager for Colonial, said the clean-up effort would likely cost $40,000 to $50,000.
He said, "When you get a spill like this, cost is really secondary. Whatever it takes, we'll do it."
Crews used skimmers to suck the oil from the water's surface, sometimes at a rate of almost 600 gallons an hour.
Another Colonial spill occurred on Lookout Mountain in 1996 when either lightning or a power line arc melted through the pipeline during an ice storm. At the time, Colonial representatives described as "an act of God."
Most of the oil from that spill, an estimated 63,000 gallons, was never recovered.
Officials believe 60,000 gallons went into an underground sinkhole over the course of several days, soaking into the soil and caverns below and causing the National Park Service to close several caves because of dangerous fuel-oil fumes.
Bob Rosen, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's emergency response branch in Atlanta at the time, said the bulk of the oil could be bound in up in the soil.
"If [the oil] stays where it is and slowly degrades due to this venting, it's not going to have an impact on anything," he said.
Then, in 2012, 500 gallons of gasoline spilled from an underground pipeline in Moccasin Bend about 1,000 feet from the Tennessee River.
Colonial shut down that line and a second nearby distillate pipeline immediately for safety reasons.
The Alabama spill could mean motorists pay more for gasoline in coming days, although experts say that any spike in service-station prices should only be temporary. Colonial said that supply disruptions would be felt first in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. If prices rise, the effect could be felt the hardest in Tennessee, which is supplied by a spur off the leaky pipeline.
In Chattanooga on Saturday, several stations who sold gas for under $2 a gallon before the spill had raised prices to around the $2.25 mark, a spot check showed.
In response to the shutdown, the governors in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee announced they would lift restrictions on the number of hours that truck drivers delivering fuel can work, in hopes of preventing fuel shortages. Governors can suspend federal transportation regulations during emergencies.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said his order was a precautionary measure.
"We are not currently seeing any widespread unavailability of petroleum in Tennessee," Haslam said in a statement. "We urge Tennesseans to maintain their normal fuel purchasing and driving patterns to help prevent any potential impacts on our fuel supply while the pipeline undergoes repairs."
The EPA waived requirements last week that metro areas with air quality issues in Georgia and Tennessee use a cleaner-burning type of gasoline during the summer months. That requirement of the Clean Air Act expired at midnight Thursday.
On Saturday, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director Patrick Sheehan released a statement reassuring the public that, despite the leak, there will be plenty of fuel available over the coming days so long as consumers maintain their usual driving and fuel-consumption habits.
"If consumers fill up unnecessarily, top off their tanks when they aren't close to empty, and fill multiple containers at the pumps, then our petroleum retailers will not be able to keep up with the demand of the fuel supply," he said.
"The Colonial Pipeline is not the only supplier of petroleum to Tennessee. There are other pipelines contributing to the state's fuel supply."