Oil company sued over spills

The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the world’s largest oil pipeline company for spills that reached waterways in seven states including the largest ever recorded in South Carolina.

The lawsuit against Colonial Pipeline Co. was filed on 28 November in Atlanta federal court on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency for numerous spills which have occurred over the last 20 years, leaking about three million gallons (13.6 million litres) of oil and petroleum products into waterways. In the last serious spill in 1996, which was allegedly caused by pipe corrosion, mechanical damage and operator error, more than 950,000 gallons (4.3 million litres) of diesel fuel spilled into the Reedy River in South Carolina, killing 35,000 fish and dispersing oil 34 miles downstream.

The Justice Department says that Colonial’s 5,300 mile (8,500 km) pipeline crosses numerous rivers, streams, and wetlands, and oil spills from the pipeline have put at risk a variety of aquatic systems and wants the court to force the company to take steps to prevent further spills, including:

  • to investigate the depth and condition of the dirt or other material that covers the buried pipeline and take action to address exposed and shallow pipe;
  • to inspect the pipeline for defects such as corrosion and cracks, and repair these defects in accordance with industry standards on a prompt schedule;
  • to inspect, upgrade and maintain the cathodic protection system, which controls corrosion, so that it complies with industry performance standards; and
  • upgrade the pipeline’s leak detection strategy and system.

The United States also is seeking significant civil penalties from Colonial under the Clean Water Act, to serve as a monetary deterrent both to the company and others who might otherwise violate the statute. The Act authorises a court to impose civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each day of violation prior to January 1997, and $27,500 per day for each day thereafter, or, alternatively, $1,000 per barrel of oil spilled or $3,000 per barrel in the case of gross negligence, which would result in a fine of millions in this case.

Colonial, which moves about 80 million gallons (365 million litres) of petroleum daily, said that it already paid $13.5 million in fines and damages after the Reedy River spill . The company said that the 1996 spill prompted internal prevention measures, resulting in a drop of 80% in operator errors and no greater spills than 2,100 gallons (9,500 litres).

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