NC hit by the biggest gasoline spill in the U.S. this century

Published January 27, 2021

By Lisa Sorg

This map, provided by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, shows the locations of various types of pipelines in the U.S. The Colonial Pipeline, which carries gasoline and other refined petroleum, enters North Carolina south of Charlotte and continues northeast through Guilford County and onto its end point in New Jersey. There are offshoots of the Colonial Pipeline in other counties, including Johnston.

Record gasoline spill in Huntersville was Colonial Pipeline’s 32nd accident in N.C. since 2000

When Colonial Pipeline initially estimated it had spilled 63,000 gallons of gasoline from a ruptured pipeline in Huntersville last August, that sounded like a lot, about twice the amount in a backyard swimming pool. Now, five months after the disaster, town residents’ fears have come true: At 1.2 million gallons, the accident was the largest individual gasoline spill in U.S. history since at least 2000. To illustrate how many gallons escaped from the pipeline, the “Giant Peach” water tower in Gaffney, S.C., holds 1 million gallons of water.

This was not Colonial’s first spill in North Carolina, according to federal pipeline accident data. In fact, it was the company’s 32nd reported spill in the past 20 years. (There have been no fatalities or injuries attributed to these accidents.) The other major gasoline pipeline company in North Carolina is Plantation; it had one large spill in 2003, which accounts for most of its total in this century.

Today, we examine the spill numbers for Colonial nationwide and in North Carolina, as reported to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The data include inland spills of refined petroleum only, not offshore. Refined petroleum is defined as gasoline, diesel fuel or crude oil. See the charts at the bottom of the page for more numbers.

Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

First a couple of numbers to keep in mind:

42 — Number of U.S. gallons in one barrel of refined petroleum

5,500 — Miles of pipeline operated by Colonial, originating in Texas and traveling through the Southeast to New Jersey

Spills, nationwide and in N.C., in gallons:

14.8 million — Gallons spilled nationwide, by all companies, 2000-2019

920,628 — Of those gallons spilled nationwide, amount by Colonial, 2000-2019

1.35 million — Total gallons spilled by all companies in the U.S. in the entire year of 2000

1.2 million — Gallons of gasoline spilled by Colonial in a single incident: the Aug. 14, 2020, pipeline breach in Huntersville

158,130 — Total gallons spilled, N.C., 2000-2019

58,758 — Of those gallons, amount spilled by Colonial, over the same time period

Number of spills, nationwide and in N.C., 2000-2019

2,571 — Total number of spills in U.S.

272 — Number of spills in U.S. caused by Colonial

38 — Total number of spills in N.C.

31 — Number of spills in N.C. caused by Colonial; Huntersville became the 32nd in 2020


The cleanup costs, 2000-2019

$168.8 million — Minimum total costs of all spills incurred by Colonial, nationwide, in current dollars

$9.5 million — Total costs of all spills by all companies in N.C.

$10 million — Minimum cost of Huntersville spill, 2020


The fines

$34 millionCivil penalty assessed by the EPA in 2003 for several years’ of spills into rivers and creeks throughout the Southeast, including two instances in Greensboro, where 764 gallons entered waterways

$606,700 — Amount the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has fined Colonial since 1993

$448,000 — Amount the PHMSA has collected

All spills of refined petroleum products in North Carolina (Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

All spills of refined petroleum products in North Carolina (Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)