by: Aaron Diamant, Richard Elliot, Justin Gray Updated:
HELENA, Ala. - Gov. Nathan Deal has signed an executive order allowing truck drivers to drive over their allowable hours so they can deliver gas to metro Atlanta after an explosion along the Colonial Pipeline in Alabama on Monday.
"This measure is intended to help ensure uninterrupted fuel supply in Georgia as we await more information from Alabama officials. Until normal pipeline production resumes, I urge the public to maintain regular consumption levels and travel schedules," Deal said in a news release.
The blast happened late Monday afternoon in Helena, Alabama, along the Colonial Pipeline, which feeds the majority of the gas supply for metro Atlanta.
Video taken by witnesses showed massive plumes of smoke and flames reaching well above 100 feet.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency Tuesday, allowing the same measures as the executive order Deal declared.
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Colonial Pipeline, based in Alpharetta, said in a statement Tuesday that it restarted its Line 2, which transports diesel, jet fuel and other products, around 11 a.m.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant traveled to Helena on Tuesday, where pipeline officials held a late afternoon news conference.
"The size and volume of fire, no, that's something we don't see every day," said Colonial Pipeline incident commander Gerald Beck.
Local, state, and federal crews descended on Helena which is in rural Shelby County, Alabama, about 30 miles south of Birmingham.
"Over the next day or two... we can get in and really see what needs to be done and then we can affect the repair," Beck said.
Alpharetta-based colonial confirms the fire is now nearly out and the investigation is underway.
The company says a trackhoe operated by a veteran and highly trained contract crew from eastern Alabama struck the pipeline.
"This is a tragic accident. We had a contractor out there that we used for many years excavating over the top of a pipeline. This contractor has done this many, many times before," said Bill Berry with Colonial Pipeline.
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This time, the explosion killed one worker and injured five -- four with severe burns.
Beck became emotional when he recalled getting the first call.
"We spend a lot of time, money and effort to make sure that never happens, so when you ask me what I felt, I felt bad. I still feel bad. It doesn't stop me what I have to do going forward," Beck said.
The Colonial Pipeline runs from south Texas to the eastern seaboard.
The explosion happened while those contractors worked on final repairs to a section of the pipeline that ruptured in September, causing widespread gas outages across metro Atlanta. That same line will remain down until at least Saturday.
But it’s still too early to gage the impact on metro Atlanta drivers for now.
"I think patience is a good start," Berry said.
The company says it will take another day or two before they can confirm the scope of the damage.
They have not given any estimates yet for how long repairs will take. The feds will monitor all of that.
Drivers worried about gas supply
The pipeline explosion is causing some uncertainty at the pumps, and the governor is now stepping in.
Gas retailers told Channel 2’s Richard Elliot they think they may be in better shape this time than during the gas shortage the Atlanta area experienced in September.
Elliot found several of the gas stations in Paulding County are already using the winter blend of gasoline.
Six weeks ago, they had to wait seven full days for the EPA to give them the OK to switch from summer to winter blend and they hope that makes all the difference.
Elliot stopped at a QT station in Dallas to see how it was faring.
He found it was busy but nothing out of the ordinary. Prices for gas are a bit higher, $2.29 for regular, but there was plenty of gas to go around.
Angela Holland, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, said even with Colonial Pipeline explosion, she believes stocks of winter blend gas in metro Atlanta are good.
Holland told Elliot that gas stations can get gas from another pipeline or stores in Savannah and Jacksonville.
She just reminds people not to rush out and fill up if you don't need to because that can affect how much gas is available.
“As long as demand remains normal, then we should be in good shape to continue providing the goods and services that we're here to provide,” Holland said.
The governor's office contacted Elliot Tuesday morning saying it was in contact with Colonial.
“The governor will determine the appropriate course of action as more information becomes available,” his office told Elliot.
Melissa Freeman said she travels a lot for work and admits she's worried about potential outages.
“I didn't want to take a chance of what happened last time with all the pumps not having gas and not being able to get it,” Freeman told Elliot.
It is possible the governor could issue another truck waiver, allowing drivers to deliver gas beyond their maximum allowable hours, but that decision would come only after he gets more information about what's happening in Alabama.
Audit finds federal safety agency has missed deadlines
As crews continue to get the pipeline back up and running in Alabama, hundreds of miles away in Washington regulators are tasked with making sure pipelines are safe.
Just days before the deadly pipeline explosion in Alabama, federal investigators warned that the agency in charge of pipeline safety had missed repeated deadlines to put tougher standards in place.
Channel 2’s Justin Gray learned that safety measures Congress voted into law five years ago still haven't been put into action.
Gray found out that federal investigators have issued corrective orders to Colonial pipeline twice since September. But there are only 188 inspectors to cover 2.7 million miles of pipeline.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is charged with overseeing the country's 2.7 million miles of pipeline.
But just in the past few days federal auditors have found that it’s missed 75 percent of its deadlines for issuing new rules and regulations.
The inspector general found that, “Since 2005, PHMSA has missed deadlines for responding to 115 of 118 NTSB recommendations and 10 of 12 GAO recommendations.”
Some pipeline safety provisions passed by Congress in 2011 still haven’t been written.
“They're under staffed, under capacity,” said Lena Moffitt, with the Sierra Club.
Moffitt said accidents like the one in Alabama show the real world impact of those delays.
“This is a symptom of a serious problem,” Moffitt told Gray.
This year, President Barack Obama signed into law a new bipartisan pipeline safety bill that gives the agency more money and more power.
The bill authorizes officials to issue emergency orders to pipeline owners and operators who violate safety standards.
PHMSA told Channel 2 Action News it issued a corrective action order after the September failure at the Alabama pipeline and if it finds any wrongdoing in Monday’s fire, it can levy financial penalties or refer the case for criminal investigation.
A PHMSA representative told Gray they did an internal assessment that found many of the same problems the auditors did.
The representatives said Colonial has already instituted several changes to better prioritize their limited resources.
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