Business

As gas stations go dry across central NC, pipeline works to send more fuel

Posted September 19, 2016 2:40 p.m. EDT
Updated September 20, 2016 7:02 a.m. EDT

— Gas prices spiked and drivers found "out of service" bags covering pumps as the gas shortage in the South rolled into the work week, raising fears that the scattered disruptions could become more widespread.

The shortage is blamed on a pipeline rupture and leak of at least 252,000 gallons of gas in Alabama. The pipeline company has two main lines and said Monday that it is shipping "significant volumes" on the second of the two lines to mitigate the impact of the interruption on the other line.

Colonial Pipeline said it was working "around the clock" to repair the break and supplies have either been delivered or are on their way to locations in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Still, motorists discovered bone-dry pumps in many communities in the Triangle and are now wondering when supply issues will be resolved.

"I went to like six stations in Durham. I could not find any gas. And I went to like four stations coming here, and this is the first station I found gas," Stephanie Murriell said as she waited in line at an Exxon station at Capital Boulevard and Calvary Drive in north Raleigh. "I even went on Facebook and posted on Facebook, 'Please help me find gas in Durham and Raleigh,' and this is the first place that I've come to that had gas."

The station, which was rationing customers to $10 gas purchases, ran out of fuel shortly after noon.

"The people need gas. Everybody needs gas. We are almost out of gas. Too many stations here are out of gas," station manager Jimmy Alkhateeb said to explain the gas rationing.

Alkhateeb said he had no idea when the station would be resupplied with fuel.

Jeff Hawkins, who drove from Charlotte to Raleigh on business, worried about making it back home if stations are either out of gas or limiting purchases.

"I stopped at two other places, and they were out, so I figured I better gas up now. If I wait any longer, it could get worse," Hawkins said, adding that $10 in gas "would not help me at all. That would probably not even get me home."

The town of Zebulon even implemented conservation measures, such as cutting back yard waste collections, to ensure town vehicles have enough fuel to get through the temporary shortage.

Alpharetta, Ga.-based Colonial has acknowledged that between 252,000 gallons (954,000 liters) and 336,000 gallons (1,272,000 liters) of gasoline leaked from a pipeline near Helena, Alabama, since the spill was first detected Sept. 9. It's unclear when the spill actually began. The U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating.

"We continue to be in regular communication with our customers, who are also working on their own individual contingency plans to minimize supply disruptions. This includes trucking and barging fuel from other markets and refineries," the company said.

Colonial Pipeline said over the weekend that it was beginning construction of a temporary pipeline that will bypass a leaking section of its main gasoline pipeline in Shelby County, Alabama. Its statement Monday did not say when that temporary pipeline is expected to be running.

Near the site of the rupture, trucks rumbled along a rural road. Retiree Lawrence Barnett, who lives a few miles from the pipeline, felt the impact of the spill Monday when he drove to Fox Valley Mart to buy regular gas for a piece of farm equipment and found the nozzles covered in black and yellow plastic bags.

Several miles away, police guarded the entrance to a Colonial Pipeline terminal beside Interstate 65. Tanker trucks like those used to haul fuel were parked around the property, where gasoline removed from the spill has been stored, and a steady stream of trucks came and went through the gate.

In Georgia, AAA reported the price of regular gas jumped more than 5 cents from Sunday's average of $2.26 to just over $2.31. The average price a week ago was around $2.10.

"Oh yeah, I've noticed that the prices have just gone up, I mean, through the roof!" said Tom Wargo at a gas station northeast of Atlanta.

Wargo runs a nonprofit organization that supplies pet food to people in need, and spends much of his time on the road. He just returned from a road trip to Louisiana, where he helped people after the floods there, he said.

"I tried getting gas yesterday, and a lot of the stations had no gas at all, except diesel," Wargo said Monday.

AAA Carolinas said the average price for a gallon in North Carolina was $2.16 – up from $2.05 last week. In South Carolina, a gallon was selling for an average of $2.04. That's an increase of 13 cents from last week.

In the Chattanooga, Tenn., area, the price of regular gas jumped 6 cents in one day, AAA reported.

"We certainly expect the gas prices to increase, certainly while this line is under repair and not at full capacity," AAA spokesman Garrett Townsend said Monday.

AAA recommended that people not panic and fill up only if they need gas.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory activated the state's Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with counties regarding fuel needs. He previously signed executive orders to waive restrictions on trucks delivering fuel and to outlaw price gouging.

"We are taking steps to protect consumers and ensure that fuel is continuing to flow into the state," McCrory said in a statement. "To help ensure adequate fuel supplies, I have instructed state agencies to consider options to limit fuel use, including curtailing non-essential travel for state employees."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal likewise issued an executive order Monday aimed at preventing price gouging.

"There have been recent reports that wholesale and retail gas prices have substantially increased in some markets," he said.

In metro Atlanta, Jim Altman had about a third of a tank left and said the first two gas stations he tried near his home had no gas. He was finally able to fill his orange 1973 Datsun 240z at a Kroger gas station in southeast Atlanta, after seeing people post on an online neighborhood message board that the station had gas.

A magistrate judge, he figured he should fill up Monday because he has to drive about 70 miles to Athens on Tuesday for a training program.

"I wasn't terribly worried because they were saying spotty outages, not pervasive outages," he said.