A ribbon of green space crosses High Point Road in Sandy Springs, with manicured shrubbery on one side and a church’s community garden on the other. Only a close look at warning signs reveals that beneath it, jet fuel and gasoline flow in an underground pipe.
Operated by Alpharetta-based Colonial, it’s part of the same pipeline that had a major leak and fatal explosion in Alabama last fall. In March, Colonial dug up that section of High Point Road to repair what a spokesperson calls a “slight manufacturing defect” in the pipe that had not yet caused any leak.
Colonial and another company, Plantation, have three petroleum pipelines running through neighborhoods and along waterways in Brookhaven, Buckhead, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. Those Alabama disasters are among the reasons pipelines are increasingly controversial nationwide. On the other hand, that High Point Road preventative maintenance is an example of why the industry touts a “99.999 percent” rate of delivery without accidents.
And that community garden is the kind of public use of the little-noticed pipeline right of ways that have Sandy Springs parks advocates eyeing them as potential routes for a multiuse trail network.
The local pipelines are segments of much larger routes. Plantation’s, built in the early 1940s, runs between Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Colonial’s, built in the 1960s and ’70s, runs between Texas and the New York City area. Both carry refined petroleum products, such as jet fuel, gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel and bio-diesel or ethanol.
The pipelines are little-noticed on purpose. The federal government and the companies keep the exact route maps secret from the general public, citing security concerns. However, the government provides a general map, and the right of way is dotted with small, round warning signs to anyone who might dig and get a nasty surprise.
In Reporter Newspapers communities, the pipelines generally run along the Chattahoochee River, then head east on three routes largely shared by both companies. One route – through Buckhead, Sandy Springs and Brookhaven – loosely follows Long Island and Nancy creeks, running under Roswell Road and Ga. 400.
Another pipeline branches into Sandy Springs neighborhoods south of Dalrymple Road and runs east into Dunwoody’s Wynterhall area, just north of Dunwoody Village.
The third route runs through northern Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, largely following Georgia Power Co.’s 200-foot-wide high-voltage transmission line easement.
Safety and spills
In a nation that loves low-cost oil power but hates pollution and eminent domain, petroleum pipelines are in high demand and increasingly controversial. The Midwest’s Dakota Access pipeline has drawn huge protests over property rights and leak risks. In March, lawsuits and legislation froze plans by Kinder Morgan, Plantation’s parent company, for its proposed Palmetto petroleum pipeline in east Georgia.
When Colonial’s Alabama leak happened, most metro Atlanta reaction focused on the spike in gas prices, not the possibility of a similar disaster here. Just months earlier, Colonial had repaired a potential flaw in the Sandy Springs pipeline near Dalrymple Road, which is adjacent to the Lost Corner Preserve park and Spalding Drive Elementary School.
Leaks are inevitable in the liquid transport industry, officials agree, and safety estimates are relative matters of degree. Christopher Jones, an Arizona State University professor who studies pipelines, wrote in a recent article that the “99.999 percent” leak-free pipeline record still amounts to an average of a significant leak per day somewhere in the country, and the leaks are largely self-reported. Pipeline industry groups say that most leaks that do happen are small.
The alternatives — railroads and tanker trucks – carry their own obvious risks. In a 2015 incident that gave local officials a serious, still-discussed scare, a diesel tanker crashed off an I-285 overpass onto Ga. 400. That truck didn’t leak or burn, but if it had, officials have said, there could have been mass casualties and a traffic disaster that would dwarf the recent I-85 collapse.
Colonial and Kinder Morgan say they have various safety inspection measures, including automated systems to detect unusual activity within the pipes and inspectors who walk on and fly over the routes. They also run devices called “smart pigs” down the pipes. The devices have sensors that can detect even small cracks or imperfections.
“We have robust system integrity [and] inspection and maintenance programs that meet or exceed all federal regulatory requirements,” said Colonial spokesperson Malesia Dunn.
“Nothing is perfect and nothing is perfectly risk-free, but we strive for that,” said Kinder Morgan spokesperson Melissa Ruiz, who was on her way to a large-scale emergency response practice drill in Arizona. Pipelines are much safer than trucking petroleum, she said.
It has been almost 20 years since a major leak occurred on a local pipeline. Kinder Morgan said it has reported no local leaks since the year 2000, while Colonial says it has reported one in that period, a “small leak within our property fence line in Fulton.”
The most recent major leak shows the stakes and that inspections don’t always work. In 1998, the Colonial pipeline in the Georgia Power right of way along Sandy Springs’ Morgan Falls Road cracked under the weight of landfill, spilling more than 30,000 gallons of gasoline, according to a federal report. Only about 17,000 gallons could be cleaned up, at a cost of more than $3.2 million. The leak was noticed by a local recycling center employee, not Colonial’s detection systems, the federal report says.
Local cities have leak response plans coordinated with the pipeline companies and say they have no particularly increased concerns since the Alabama incident. The advocacy group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper — which is opposing a proposed natural gas pipeline in south Georgia — also cited the spill response plans when asked about any local pipeline concerns.
“We maintain a close dialogue with officials from Colonial Pipeline and have observed emergency response drills and preparations in case a spill was to ever happen locally,” said Riverkeeper’s Jason Ulseth. “Of course, we hope that day never comes.”
Pipelines as paths
For safety reasons, permanent structures can’t be built atop the pipeline routes. (An Atlanta Braves marketing executive said at a Sandy Springs event last year that the new SunTrust Park plan had to be reoriented around a pipeline running right through that property.) In some places, that makes them natural footpaths, such as in the Cochran Shoals area of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
The Sandy Springs Conservancy, a parks advocacy group, is eyeing pipeline and other utility rights of way for potential multiuse trails, and exploring that idea was included in that city’s new land-use plan.
Colonial and Kinder Morgan said that such trails are possible, though there may be devils in the details. In practical terms, small plantings and surface paving are OK, while large trees or buildings are not.
“Shallow gardens and nature trails are generally permissible,” said Colonial’s Dunn, adding that the company donates supplies to that High Point church garden.
“The short answer is that it depends,” said Kinder Morgan’s Ruiz, noting that Planation often has easements on property owned by others. “Easement agreements have different restrictions based on the location, what is flowing through the pipeline, and what a landowner is interested in doing.”