Nearly two weeks ago, a mining inspector in Shelby County, Ala., reported a gasoline odor. When the odor was investigated, a leak was discovered in the Colonial Pipeline, a 53-year-old main pipeline that carries refined petroleum from Houston all the way to New Jersey. Although a shutdown of the pipeline was initiated only 20 minutes after the leak was reported, 336,000 gallons of gasoline was lost.
Public officials have claimed that the contamination of the spill is conveniently contained in mining property, with the only contaminated water being mining retention ponds.
But the community around the spill site has expressed concern about benzene contamination both in the air and in nearby water sources. Benzene is a known carcinogen linked to blood cancers and disorders such as Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas, as well as aplastic anemia.
It took three days for workers to reach the leak to begin repairs because the hazardous levels of benzene and gasoline vapors far exceeded safe working condition standards that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set.
The location of the leak is in the William R. Ireland Sr. Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area, which manages the Cahaba River, home to 135 known species of fish, 35 snail species (10 of which do not exist anywhere else in the world), and 10 species of fish and freshwater mussels that are threatened or endangered.
“In terms of protecting the river, they certainly seem genuine in their desire to do as much as they can to prevent it from reaching the river,” said Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler, speaking about Colonial Pipeline offiicals. “I keep shaking my head and thinking ‘Am I still in Alabama?’ It’s certainly unusual in this type of situation to have that kind of cooperation.”
The Alabama spill shines a spotlight on concerns in other ares of the country regarding pipeline safety. Many have worried that this same thing could happen to the Dakota Access Pipeline currently being constructed, which runs under the Missouri River. “It takes 17 drops of Benzene to contaminate 50,000 gallons of water. So can you imagine what we’d be dealing with, with 336,000 gallons,” Nicole Donaghy with the Dakota Resource Council told KFYR-TV.
Residents near the site of the Colonial Pipeline leak are concerned about pollution and environmental impacts to their drinking water and the Cahaba River wildlife. Billy McDanal, who lives less than 500 yards from the edge of the Wildlife Management Area, is afraid that leaked gas could contaminate local water and reach his home.
“What’s got me worried with the gas is that it’s going to go … underneath my house and am I going to get gas coming under my house?” McDanal told reporters.