Governors of six states have declared a state of emergency in the wake of a major gas pipeline break south of Birmingham, Ala., that is leaving many gas stations low on gas or dry at the pump.
Governors of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia declared emergencies to prepare for a potential fuel crisis posed by a breach in the main artery that connects refineries in Houston to states along the Eastern Seaboard up to New York.
The gas spill was first detected on Sept. 9 by an inspector with the Alabama Surface Mining Commission performing a monthly check of a coal mine in the William R. Ireland Sr. Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area in Shelby County, about 30 miles south of Birmingham.
Colonial Pipeline, which owns and operates the underground pipeline, was able to close it off about 20 minutes after confirming the leak. Authorities revised the estimated size of the spill over the weekend from 250,000 gallons to 336,000 gallons.
The pipeline serves as the main artery for transporting fuel from Houston to nearly half the eastern U.S. Some gas stations in all of the affected states have already run out of gas completely, and many others are rationing supplies with 10-gallon restrictions. The hardest-hit areas are those north of the Alabama spill.
By declaring a state of emergency, the governors of the affected states are able to loosen fuel truck regulations and are allowing shipments of fuel to be delivered by truck without the usual safety restrictions in place.
Colonial Pipeline is currently working on building another stretch of pipeline to bypass the broken pipe, which it calls Line 1, but full service won’t resume until at least next week. In the meantime, Line 2, which transports distillates such as diesel, jet fuel, and home heating oil alongside Line 1, will be used to transport gasoline alternately.
Repairs didn’t commence until more than three days after the leak was confirmed because benzene and other hazardous fumes exceeded the safety limits set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Environmental groups are closely monitoring the spill’s impact on the surrounding environment. The Cahaba River and surrounding valley are one the most biologically unique and sensitive areas in the country, with several wildlife species not found anywhere else or protected under the Endangered Species Act. Dry weather has so far prevented the accumulation of gasoline to spread into the Cahaba River or its tributaries.
Colonial’s pipeline measures three feet in diameter and moves about 1.3 million barrels (55 million gallons) of gas per day to access points servicing about 50 million people – nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population. Regulators have not said what caused the artery to break.