HELENA, Ala. (AP/WATE) — A fatal explosion has shut down a pipeline supplying gasoline to millions of people across the Southeast — the second accident and shutdown in two months — raising the specter of another round of gas shortages and price increases.
It happened when a dirt-moving track hoe struck the pipeline, ignited gasoline and sparked a blast Monday, killing one worker and injuring five others, Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline said. Flames and thick black smoke continued to soar on Tuesday, and firefighters built an earthen berm to contain the burning fuel.
The explosion happened not far from where the Colonial pipeline sprung a leak and spilled 252,000 to 336,000 gallons of gasoline in September. After the leak, the company used one of Colonial’s two main lines to move gasoline through as it made repairs, but it still led to days of dry pumps and higher gas prices in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas while repairs were made.
The Colonial pipeline provides nearly 40 percent of the region’s gasoline and usually runs at or near full capacity. Together the Colonial’s two lines carry more than 2 million barrels of fuel a day.
By mid-day Tuesday, Colonial Pipeline said it was able to restart the second of its two main lines, which carries diesel fuel and jet fuel. However, the company added that it anticipates that the main gasoline line will be closed the rest of this week.
The severity of the situation will depend on how long the still-closed gasoline pipeline remains closed — whether it’s a few days or a few weeks, AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said.
Having both lines shut down for an extended period could have been “a worst-case scenario,” said Patrick DeHaan, an analyst with price-tracking service GasBuddy.com.
After the September leak, Colonial said it made up some of the gasoline shortfall by sending gas through the line that usually carries diesel and jet fuel. The company has not said whether it intends to do so again.
“We would encourage drivers not to panic, so don’t run to the gas station and start filling up every gas can you can,” said AAA spokeswoman Tamra Johnson. “We really have to see how this plays out.”
Colonial Pipeline, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, operates 5,599 miles of pipelines, transporting gasoline, jet fuel, home heating oil and other hazardous liquids daily in 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to company filings.
Plagued by a severe drought after weeks without rain, the section of Alabama where the explosion happened has been scarred by multiple wildfires in recent weeks, and crews worked to keep the blaze from spreading.
From 3,000 feet in the air, a flame could be seen still burning in a haze of smoke Tuesday, a day after a pipeline explosion left a charred scene in an Alabama forest.
An AP photographer flew over the site Tuesday morning and saw the flame, the smoke and trucks parked near the Colonial pipeline that were covered in gray ash.
Photographer Brynn Anderson said the blackened earth and a large area of charred trees are surrounded by other trees awash in fall colors just beyond the burned area, showing a stark contrast.
Two wildfires caused by the explosion burned 31 acres of land, said Coleen Vansant, a spokeswoman with the Alabama Forestry Commission.
Houses around the blast scene were evacuated, and sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Hartley said it wasn’t clear when people might be able to return home.
“We’ll just hope and pray for the best,” Gov. Robert Bentley said Monday. On Tuesday, the governor declared a state of emergency to temporarily ease limits on the hours that truckers carrying gasoline may drive. Other governors took similar action following the September leak, which allowed truckers to transport more gasoline by highways, making up for some of the shortage.
Eight or nine subcontractors were working on the pipeline when it exploded about 3 p.m. Monday, sheriff’s Maj. Ken Burchfield told Al.com. The conditions of those hurt weren’t immediately known.
“Colonial’s top priorities are the health and safety of the work crew on site and protection of the public,” the company said in a brief statement.
East Tennessee AAA spokesperson Stephanie Milani says it’s too early to know the exact impact of the blast and shutdown, but motorists in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions should expect to see rising gas prices in the coming days.
During the Colonial Pipeline shutdown in September due to a leak, gas prices rose 17 cents in Tennessee. The Southeast had to rely on long-distance truck deliveries and waterborne deliveries of gas. Unbranded retailers bore the brunt of the tight supply. An extended shutdown could have a major impact on supplies and prices from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast.
Regarding rising gas prices and a possible shortage, Pilot Flying J Vice President of Petroleum Supply released the following statement:
“At this time, Pilot and Flying J travel Centers and Pilot Convenience stores in the southeast, including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, have fuel available, and we are not experiencing any issues with fuel supply at this time. However, the longer the Colonial Pipeline is offline, the more difficult it will be to maintain our supply of gasoline.”
Weigel’s President Ken McMullen said the company doesn’t know enough about the shortage at this time, but is looking into bringing in fuel from other states by trucks.