Owners of a ruptured gasoline pipeline in Shelby County said Wednesday they expected to have gas flowing again soon — a move that could bring an end to the creeping rise of gas prices in Alabama.
“If the pipeline is running, gas prices next week should go back to where they were a week ago,” said Clay Ingram, a spokesman for AAA of Alabama.
Drivers in east central Alabama and across the Southeast have seen higher pump prices and sporadic gas shortages in the past week, as petroleum distributors began to feel the effects of a spill from the Colonial Pipeline, which runs from Houston to the urban northeast and supplies much of the Southeast and East Coast with gasoline.
A state mining inspector spotted the rupture in a stretch of pipeline in Shelby County on Sept. 9, and Colonial shut it down the same day. More than 300,000 gallons of gasoline may have leaked into a wooded area near a tributary of the Cahaba River as a result of the rupture.
The pipeline shutdown put a squeeze on gas suppliers, who by last weekend were no longer shipping to some Alabama gas stations — and on drivers who saw a price hike.
In Anniston, a more typical price was $2.20 per gallon, with some stores asking as much as $2.29 and some as little as $1.99.
Pipeline company officials have typically communicated with the press only through regular posts to their crisis-response webpage, where on Wednesday morning they announced that they’d completed a 500-foot bypass of the ruptured pipeline segment, and that the pipeline would be “restarted this evening.”
That was news to some workers at local gas stations, where shortages at some stores — and widespread rumors of shortages — have had customers coming in to ask if gas is available at all.
“I’ve heard that the stores with lots of business are getting gas,” said Brandy Wilson, a cashier at Samco on U.S. 78 East in Oxford, which had gas for sale Wednesday. “It’s the stores out in the country that could have problems.”
Wilson works just down the road from the Murphy USA pipeline terminal in Oxford, where fuel trucks will likely line up to get gas when the pipeline is running. At noon Wednesday, there was little action at the terminal, with a few trucks parked beside massive fuel tanks.
Westward on U.S. 78, at the Quick Fill near the state fish hatchery in Eastaboga, nearly every pump had a pickup parked beside it at lunchtime. Inside, men in fluorescent yellow vests lined up to pay. A cashier at the store declined to discuss the pipeline break.
“I’m pissed at the media because y’all are creating a damn panic,” he said.
Shortages at some stations over the weekend had some local residents rushing to fill their tanks, but for most drivers, the spotty availability of gas was less an emergency than an inconvenience. If one store didn’t have regular unleaded, the next store likely did.
Ingram, the AAA spokesman, said at least two Birmingham stations ran out of gas last weekend precisely because of the rush to fill up.
“The worst thing you can do in a situation like this is to see just how much gas you can buy,” he said.
Laskoski said his service, which relies on reports from users of the GasBuddy app, knew of only four stations in Alabama with no gas Wednesday.
Gov. Robert Bentley over the weekend issued a limited state of emergency, allowing trucking companies to waive some rules to ship gas to stations faster. Georgia’s governor signed an executive order banning gas stations from raising prices.
Laskoski said he wasn’t too concerned about price gouging in the wake of the spill.
“That’s a dangerous game for these businesses to play,” he said. Even with sporadic shortages, he said, drivers could easily abandon a high-priced store for a competitor willing to undercut them.
Laskoski said he and his colleagues didn’t hear about the spill when it happened but knew something was amiss when prices started changing last week.
“We knew there was an interruption in the supply somewhere,” he said.
Myra Crawford, executive director of the environmental group Cahaba Riverkeeper, said she got a call from Colonial the day the spill was discovered. The company wanted Riverkeeper to come to the site as an independent observer, she said, and Riverkeeper began posting updates about the spill almost immediately.
“Colonial has been enormously transparent,” Crawford said. She described the spill as “very serious,” but said recent dry weather helped keep much of the fuel away from the Cahaba River. Small wet-weather streams that could have carried fuel to a tributary creek were mostly dried up.
“This was bad, and this was big, but we got lucky,” she said.
Colonial briefly shut down its pipeline in April after a contractor discovered a smaller leak near Heflin, but that leak caused no ripples in the wider world.
Alabama’s Public Service Commission employs a handful of pipeline inspectors, but those inspectors don’t monitor the Colonial. An inspector told The Daily Home on Wednesday the state checks only in-state pipelines that connect to the Colonial and other pipelines.
Attempts to reach federal inspectors for comment Wednesday weren’t successful.
Crawford, the Riverkeeper official, said the pipelines are inspected by air once or twice a week.