UPDATE | Savannah Riverkeeper officials speak out after judge dismisses Kinder Morgan lawsuit

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News 12 NBC 26 News At 11 | Wednesday, April 26, 2017

UPDATE | 11:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A local environmental group says Kinder Morgan still has a mess on its hands it must clean up.

A judge dismissed a lawsuit last week filed by Savannah Riverkeeper and Upstate Forever against Kinder Morgan and Plantation Pipeline alleging a violation of Clean Water Act laws. The suit was filed following a 2014 oil and gasoline spill in Belton, South Carolina contaminated nearby streams and creeks that feed into Lake Hartwell, Lake Thurmond and the Savannah River.

Tonya Bonitatibus with the Savannah Riverkeeper says that leak is still happening and impacting lives in Belton. While the judge may have decided that pipe is be fixed, she says there's still a mess left to clean up before it reaches the Savannah.

"Technically it's not completely over, but this was a big blow."

That's the attitude Bonitatibus has after she received the news their lawsuit filed against Kinder Morgan and the Plantation Pipeline was dismissed. Even though a judge ruled in favor of the other side, Bonitatibus says the site where the spill happened still smells like gasoline and claims it's still still leaking into the groundwater.

"That is not something that the judge disputed. It is well known that this is continuing to discharge," Bonitatibus says. "To this day, if you walk onto it it will burn your eyes and it will overwhelm you with the smell of gasoline. So it's still there. Unfortunately, the judge saw it as if the pipe wasn't broken anymore they don't actually have to be responsible for the mess."

She says the judge ruled that because the pipe itself is fixed and no longer leaking, it's no longer a Clean Water Act Violation.

"What Kinder Morgan is saying essentially is that they are not responsible because the pipe is not actively leaking and because it's not coming out of one place but it is leaking out into the creek and a bunch of different places that it doesn't qualify as a violation. Because the pipes are not actively leaking there but that it is leaking into the ground water from the soil, which is not a direct source. That's a little disingenuous."

She disagrees with the ruling and says Kinder Morgan still has a bigger mess to clean up.

"According to Kinder Morgan, they released about 360,000 gallons [during the spill]. Our experts came back and said it's likely twice that and so far they've only taken 200,000 out," Bonitatibus says. "So even according to their numbers, there still almost 200,000 left. According to ours, it's close to 700,000 gallons."

Bonitatibus says the gas and oil yet to be cleaned up has already started breaking down into benzene and other cancer-causing components and has started flowing downstream. She says if left unchecked, it could eventually make its way to our neck of the woods through our region's largest river.

She also says completing the cleanup process now doesn't mean that site will be safe for wildlife soon.

"If you were to remove all of the sediment saturated with petroleum, you still have everything that has gotten down into the groundwater," Bonitatibus says. "Beyond that, you would have to start a pretty active ground water cleanup. You are talking 10, 20, 30 years [to clean]. Now the process that is happening underground is that petroleum is breaking into these really dangerous components and it's continuing to leak every day into the creek."

South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control have done a good job containing what's left of the spill around the lake, but says they have yet to issue any fines or punishment to Kinder Morgan. She says keeping the fight alive for those who've had their living ruined by the spill is more than enough to keep going.

"It's the kind of thing that we have to be very wary about because when big companies are allowed to do this kind of damage and not be held responsible, then it's the individuals that lose," Bonitatibus says. "If you are allowed to discharge 300, 700,000 gallons, never pay a fine and only do a shoddy job of cleaning up, where is that responsibility and who bears those cost? The answer is the taxpayers."

Bonitatibus says any property owners across our area with pipelines nearby can tell if there's a pipeline burst underneath their property. She says if you notice that either the grass is turning a funny color or you are noticing dips in the ground, the first thing that you want to do is to document it.

She says you want to document that you did not cause the impact and call the pipeline company and your state officials immediately.

She says the property owners in Belton are still in the midst of their lawsuit against Kinder Morgan and Plantation Pipeline, but could not comment on where it stands in court. She says Savannah Riverkeeper and Upstate Forever have 30 days to decide to appeal the judge's decision and they are strongly considering that as an option.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A lawsuit filed against Kinder Morgan and the Plantation Pipeline Company by Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper has been dismissed at the request of the Defendants.

Kinder Morgan and Plantation Pipeline moved to dismiss on grounds that the Plaintiffs' didn't state a claim for relief and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Court documents state they also argued that the Plaintiffs' claim for injunctive relief should be dismissed.

A judge granted the dismissal in the civil case on April 20.

The suit, filed on Dec. 28, 2015 stated it was challenging ongoing, unlawful discharges of gasoline and petroleum substances, and other contaminants by the defendants near Lewis Drive in Belton, South Carolina into the Savannah River Basin. The suit stated that it violated the Clean Water Act.

Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper have filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan and the Plantation Pipeline Company.

The suit, filed on Dec. 28, states it is challenging ongoing, unlawful discharges of gasoline and petroleum substances, and other contaminants by defendants near Lewis Drive in Belton, South Carolina into the Savannah River Basin. The suit states that violates the Clean Water Act.

What is the Clean Water Act?
The objective of the Clean Water Act is to “restore and maintain the chemical,physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

According to the suit, this spill is one of the largest pipeline spills in South Carolina’s history.

Nearly two years after the spill, the Savannah Riverkeeper said they did some tests. They showed the gasoline is breaking down into hazardous chemicals, including benzene and toluene. The contaminated area is part of the Savannah River watershed, according to a release from the Savannah Riverkeeper in October 2016 when the group gave Kinder Morgan 60-day notice of the suit.

According to the lawsuit, in the month after the spill, the subsurface petroleum product was reportedly over fourteen feet thick. Although a reported 209,000 gallons of gasoline were removed from the site by
the end of 2015, no significant amount of additional material has been removed in 2016, the lawsuit alleges.

Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper are nonprofit membership public interest organizations that work to protect the waters of Anderson County and the Savannah River Basin.

Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, which is headquartered in Houston, Texas, owns an interest in and/or operates 84 thousand miles of pipelines in North America making it the largest petroleum pipeline and energy infrastructure company in the United States.

News 12 NBC 26 / Tuesday, October 25, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Two years after a pipeline spill in Belton, South Carolina the gasoline is still not fully cleaned up.

Now, some environmental agencies are threatening to sue.

Two years of clean-up boils down to 60 days. According to a 60-day notice, if Kinder Morgan doesn't find a way to clean up one of the worst pipeline spills in the area, they're getting sued.

"Make them clean up their mess! It really is just that simple," Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said.

The Savannah Riverkeeper is one of the groups bringing the suit along with Upstate Forever. They say the contamination is worse than what Kinder Morgan is reporting. According to DHEC documents, they might be right.

Frank Holleman is one of the attorneys on the case.

"What we also discovered was at least as of August, Kinder Morgan wasn't testing for pollution on the side of the creek they were polluting. They were testing across the creek where another stream comes in that was not affected," Holleman said.

A map reiterates what he said. A star shows where the leak happened. Little green boxes show where they took samples on the far side of the creek.

Bonitatibus also did some testing. Video shows them getting samples closer to the site of the spill. She says they found high levels of chemicals like benzene in the water, a chemical known to cause cancer.

The Site Assessment Report, filed by the pipeline, shows the same. The gray box means there are exceeding levels.

"When you get down by the creek, a year and a half later it still reeks of gasoline and petroleum odor," Holleman said.

Kinder Morgan says they've spent $4.3 million on cleaning the spill and says "It is not uncommon for remediation activities to proceed over multiple years."

But, in their monthly report from August 2016 they admit "no measurable volume of product has been recovered since early 2016."

If this spill is in Belton, why should people in Augusta care? Tonya says she's been watching the contamination flow downstream for the past two years. She says it's about half way to our area at this point. The attorney says it's a bigger issue on what happens when a pipeline repair doesn't work.

In a statement from the company, Kinder Morgan says they asked Savannah Riverkeepers to share their sampling results but they "refused to do so."

Bonitatibus says they were actually subpoenaed, not asked, and it was in relation to another lawsuit against landowners. The attorney says they didn't have to give it to them since there is pending litigation.

"We refused to provide it to them at this time. We were in the process of preparing this [60-day notice] and under the governing rules of our Federal courts, we don't provide that kind of information to them until we get into litigation or a discussion into how to resolve the case," Holleman said. "More than this, they've known for a year and a half they have gasoline flowing into this river system. They don't need the non-profit Savannah Riverkeeper to tell them that."

According to the monthly report, Kinder Morgan is adding two additional surface water sampling locations on the southern bank of Brown's Creek opposite their other locations in coordination with SCDHEC.

Monday, Oct. 24, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Nearly two years after a petroleum spill in Belton, South Carolina, the Savannah Riverkeeper has said the company, Kinder Morgan, is still working to clean it up.

On Monday, the Savannah Riverkeeper announced leading conservation groups will deliver a written notice to Kinder Morgan and the Plantation Pipe Line Company that a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit is coming.

Federal records cited in the 60-day notice show poor and delayed maintenance has contributed to ruptures similar to the one that happened in December 2014.

The records show faulty materials, welding or equipment caused more than 60 percent of the Plantation Pipeline leaks in the past decade. The 60-day notice to Kinder Morgan is a required step before filing a lawsuit, according to the Savannah Riverkeeper.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys Chris DeScherer and Frank Holleman sent the notice Monday morning on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper and Upstate Forever.

Recent testing showed the gasoline is breaking down into hazardous chemicals, including benzene and toluene. The contaminated area is part of the Savannah River watershed, according to a release from the Savannah Riverkeeper.

Kinder Morgan released a statement Monday afternoon in response to the release.

From the outset, Plantation Pipe Line Company has taken full responsibility for the spill and expressed our commitment to a thorough and complete investigation and remediation of the site in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations. Our investigation and remediation efforts to date have achieved significant measurable progress, and we have submitted a corrective action plan to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Conservation (SCDHEC).

To read the short-term and longer-term investigation and remediation activities, click here.