Decades-old jet fuel spill sparks water contamination fears in south Bibb County

hduncan@macon.comAugust 15, 2010 

A soil and groundwater cleanup at the site of a 30-year-old jet fuel spill in south Bibb County has alerted neighbors for the first time to the water contamination in their community.

A pipeline supplying Robins Air Force Base with jet fuel from a bulk fuel storage terminal in south Macon has leaked several times in past decades, said Mark Smith, chief of the land protection branch for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The company that now owns the pipeline, San Antonio-based NuStar Energy LP, has installed a system to extract fuel contamination from soil and groundwater at Feagin Road, which is across Ga. 247 from Middle Georgia Regional Airport. The company is not cleaning up a second old leak on Barnes Ferry Road, but it is testing the well water of nearby residents monthly, Smith said.

The EPD has no estimate of how large either of the spills were, he said.

Smith said state environmental officials thought that because residents in the Feagin Road area have access to city water, they were all using it. But members of this rural community say many residents still drink from wells or use well water for their livestock and gardens.

Heidi Aldridge learned at a recent birthday party in her neighborhood that her water might be unsafe to drink.

She moved into her home on McArrell Drive about 10 years ago, and initially her family used Macon Water Authority water. But during the current recession her husband lost his job, and the family sought to reduce their bills.

So they started using their well again, Aldridge said, and would now have to re-plumb to switch back.

“If anyone had told us (about the water), we wouldn’t have done that, or we would have tested the water first,” said Aldridge, drinking bottled water in her backyard as chickens and a turkey pecked in the shade at her feet.

“My concern is I have four children out here and I have animals. Should we get our water tested? Whose responsibility was it to tell us, or were we even supposed to be notified?”

Smith, with the EPD, said, “If we were aware of it, we would notify somebody.”

But he said the state doesn’t check periodically to see if people have moved from city water to well water.

Smith said the state has not issued any guidelines for use of the water for gardens or animals. With this kind of contamination, he said, “You can usually tell by the smell and the taste.”

He said residents using well water can provide the EPD with a map showing their well location, and the agency can let them know whether testing is needed. EPD could ask NuStar to conduct the testing.

“Deeper wells are likely to be impacted, whereas shallow wells might be,” Smith said.

Lonzy Edwards, who represents the area on the Bibb County Commission, called the EPD’s response “a scandal.”

“It’s shameful to see how lax they’ve been at protecting the people who rely on that water,” he said. “It’s an outrage that more has not been done to let people know. ... That really hacks me off. To call themselves the Environmental Protection Division is laughable when you have this kind of gross disregard.”

Edwards said he had heard rumors over the years about high cancer rates in the area and now wants to investigate further. He said he plans to file a Freedom of Information request with the EPD.

Spill details sketchy

Although Georgia law requires that leaks from underground fuel storage tanks be reported and cleaned up, it does not require the same of pipelines, Smith said. EPD has asked NuStar to clean up the old spill at Feagin Road, and the company agreed to do so voluntarily, he said.

Chris Cho, a spokesman for NuStar, wrote in an e-mail: “NuStar is committed to environmental stewardship and being a good neighbor, so we have already invested more than $2.2 million to remediate the areas that were affected by the historic leak(s), and our investment in this effort continues.”

The jet fuel pipeline was installed in 1963 and was owned by ST Services at the time of the spills, Smith said. It has twice changed hands in the past five years, he said.

Cho said that by the time NuStar bought the pipeline, most of it had been replaced, and the new line was coated and equipped with protection to prevent corrosion. NuStar still performed a comprehensive integrity test on the line, which revealed no problems, he said. The company continues to monitor the pipeline regularly and inspect safety systems, such as emergency isolation valves.

The Feagin Road leak happened in 1980, Smith said. He said the EPD does not know when the Barnes Ferry leak occurred, but it was probably before 1994 because of the type of fuel involved: Jet Propulsion-4, the primary fuel used by the Air Force from the 1950s until 1995. This type of fuel was a half kerosene-half gasoline blend.

Smith said the chief pollutant of concern now is benzene.

According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ingesting kerosene or benzene can cause stomach irritation, dizziness, convulsions and death, depending on the amount. Benzene exposure can cause cancer.

Smith said the EPD is working with NuStar on both release sites. He said he does not know why the company is cleaning up the Feagin site but not the Barnes Ferry leak, nor why water is being tested at Barnes Ferry but not Feagin. He did not know how long NuStar had been conducting the well water testing, nor what it had found.

At one point, Smith said the Barnes Ferry spill was of comparable size with the Feagin spill, but later said it might be smaller. He said the Barnes Ferry spill affects an area east of the railroad tracks where the road runs east/west.

Cho explained that NuStar has spent $834,000 investigating the impact of the Barnes Ferry spill, and once enough information is collected, the company will propose a cleanup remedy to the EPD. He said the contamination there goes as deep as 86 feet.

Cho said NuStar’s testing had shown no contamination in Barnes Ferry residents’ wells, but “out of an abundance of caution, NuStar has worked with some residents with domestic water wells to help them obtain connection to the municipal water supply.”

The EPD first learned of the Feagin Road contamination in 1997, when its underground storage tank division was notified of a spill that could not be traced to an underground storage tank, Smith said. In 2002, the EPD and asked for ST Services to create a work plan for cleaning up the site, and the company complied, he said.

Much of that spill was on property owned by Magnolia McLendon on Feagin Road. It contaminated her well at the time, so she had another well drilled deeper and eventually moved to city water when given the chance, she said.

Edwards said McLendon’s property extends to the Ocmulgee River, and he expressed concern about whether the polluted groundwater might flow downhill toward it.

In 2007, NuStar collected 4,300 gallons of the contaminant from the surface of groundwater beneath the pipeline on Feagin Road, Smith said. Cho said the maximum depth of the contamination there is 120 feet.

Late last year, a NuStar contractor took 25 core samples and drilled 42 monitoring wells, most on McLendon’s property but some also to the north toward Ga. 247, Smith said.

He said the test wells move along the pipeline, but he did not know whether groundwater farther south on Feagin Road had been tested. It’s unclear whether the test sites were chosen based on underground water flow and topography.

John Bufford has lived on Feagin Road south of McLendon for about 15 years, and he relied on well water until his pump gave out during the recent drought. He says he’s not concerned about the pollution because the topography indicates groundwater would flow away from his property.

NuStar conducted a pilot test of a new system for extracting the underground chemicals by creating a vacuum above the water table. The full system was installed in February, and it could run for two or more years, Smith said. Cho said NuStar has spent $1.4 million on it so far.

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