No apparent impact to air quality, Cahaba River after Colonial Pipeline explosion

Courtesy of Matt Griffin and Alan Davis
Courtesy of Matt Griffin and Alan Davis

HELENA, Ala. (WIAT) — Officials said Tuesday there is no immediate impact to air quality, the Cahaba River or nearby Shades Creek from the massive Monday afternoon gasoline pipeline explosion in rural Shelby County.

David Butler with the Cahaba Riverkeeper said at this point, they do not see any impact to the river or Shades Creek. Precautionary booms were set up around the explosion site to minimize any chance of fuel getting into the water system.

“Our concern is if the fire goes out, you have free gasoline moving across the ground again,” Butler said.

Gerald Beck who has worked for Colonial for over 38 years gave a breakdown of what happened yesterday. Approximately 4,000 gallons of gasoline like you would put in your car were burned after a contract crew from L.E. Bell Construction, based in Heflin, was working with a track hoe to excavate the main pipeline no. 1 when the machinery struck the line and the gas ignited, causing the explosion hundreds of feet into the air.

“The size, the volume of the fire– that’s something we don’t see every day,” said Chief Danny Ray of the Pelham Fire Department.

Beck, his voice wrought with emotion, described how he felt when he first heard what happened: “Our contractors are like family. I felt bad…I still feel bad. It’s one thing to spill product; it’s another to hear people got hurt working on the pipeline.”

At this point, the condition of the five injured crew members have not been released. One crew member was killed at the scene of the explosion. Four remain in the hospital.

Deputy Chief Valenti was the first on the scene. He said he immediately struggled to locate and find the injured crew members. He described the chaotic scene, with workers telling him there were eight to nine that needed to be found. They looked for about an hour to locate everyone, and everyone is accounted for.

Helena Mayor Mark Hall spoke on how residents were handling the explosion. He explained he hasn’t heard any concerned about the proximity of the pipelines to their homes, because the pipelines have run through Pelham and Helena for many years, and most people are used to them being there, and the pipeline educates people.

“We live in a world where we have to deliver resources that are volatile,” Hall said. “We have to educate ourselves to stay safe.”

Hall also praised a reverse-emergency notification system that the city of Helena invested in about three years ago. He says they used it last night to notify people of the voluntary evacuation, and that in a case of a mandatory evacuation, a system like this is invaluable and he hopes others will consider it for their cities.

Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management said Tuesday there is no impact to air quality in the area. Environmental health professor Ilias Kavouras, Ph.D. says that petroleum fires lead to the release of harmful gases and aerosol in the air. He says the gases and chemicals in aerosols are identified as hazardous air toxins, which can induce acute irritation and respiratory response like headaches and breathing difficulties. If you live near the fire, Kavouras recommends taking precautions to reduce inhalation of toxic gases and particles, like staying inside or reducing time spent outdoors. Refrain from opening windows.

Colonial Pipeline says it is still very early, and noted it may be several days before the fire at the explosion site burns off all the fuel and they are able to get a look at the damage. They did say they do expect it to be less of a major fix than the leak in Sept., which they said is indirectly related to this incident as the crew was working on maintenance of the pipe that was involved in the leak, but the leak itself did not cause the explosion.

They also said it is premature to speculate the cause of the incident, though it appears that a piece of heavy machinery used to excavate around the pipeline struck the line.

“This was a tragic accident,” said Bill Berry, the public information officer for Colonial Pipeline. “This contractor has done this many, many times before. So exactly what happened, how it happened, whether there were steps that were missed; these are all things that we’re going to be investigating over the course of the next days and weeks.”

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