Society

Fuel Line Explosion Prompts Alabama State Of Emergency

| by Nik Bonopartis

Alabama's governor has declared a state of emergency after a contractor crew ruptured a major gas pipeline, causing an explosion and fire that killed one person and injured five others. The incident could lead to fuel shortages across the southeast.

The explosion in the early morning hours of Oct. 31 sparked flames that licked as high as 30 feet into the air, witnesses said, with a column of smoke visible for miles around. Half a dozen fire departments battled to bring the fire under control.

Although the site of the accident is in rural territory, several homes were evacuated and roads were closed as authorities tried to get a handle on the situation.

Gov. Robert Bentley issued a statement declaring the state of emergency through Dec. 1, unless terminated earlier by his office.

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Compounding the problem was the fact that the fire started in a drought-stricken area, CBS News reported. The explosion caused secondary and tertiary fires which ripped through 31 acres of land on Nov. 1, according to AL.com.

It's the second time in less than two months that the Colonial Pipeline system, which carries over 2 million barrels of fuel each day, has been damaged and shut down, interrupting the flow of gasoline and diesel to the southeast and eastern seaboard.

In September, a leak from the same pipeline caused the worst fuel spill in almost two decades, according to Fortune. Colonial Pipeline Co. was forced to shut down the lines for 12 days, leading to fuel shortages, price spikes and economic disruption.

The Oct. 31 accident happened only a few miles from that leak, and the contractor crew was installing a valve as part of repair work on the original leak, Colonial executive Gerald Beck said during a Nov. 1 press conference. That's when the crew struck the line with a trackhoe, puncturing the line and setting off the explosion that killed on person and left five others with burns.

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One person was discharged from a Birmingham, Alabama hospital on Nov. 2, while four others remained hospitalized with burns, a hospital spokesman said.

The fire was still burning two days after the accident, and federal officials were on-site helping firefighters limit the damage from the spill. Federal investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were also on-site.

Beck said engineers from his company were waiting on the fire to die down before getting close to the site to determine how long repairs might take. Previously, the company said the lines could be re-opened by Nov. 5. It wasn't immediately clear on Nov. 2 whether the company still planned to meet that goal.

Several analysts who spoke to Fortune said they do not expect the line to remain closed for as long as it did after the September leak, but acknowledged that the fatality changes the investigation and could delay repair efforts as investigators try to piece together exactly what happened.

As much as 168,000 gallons of fuel could have burned, spilled or evaporated in the leak, Colonial Pipeline told CBS News.

While some states in the area depend on the lines for as much as 40 percent of their gasoline, AAA's Tamra Johnson urged people not to overreact.

“We would encourage drivers not to panic," Johnson told CBS. "o don’t run to the gas station and start filling up every gas can you can."

Sources: CBS News, Fortune, AL.com (2) / Photo credit: Alabama EMA/Twitter

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