Nov. 23, 2016
Christopher Leonard wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek about the two accidents in Alabama that show how heavily millions of people rely on the Colonial Pipeline for gasoline:
On Halloween afternoon, nine men arrived at a wooded ridgeline in rural Alabama. They parked their vehicles next to a gravel road, forming a loose circle of pickup trucks, a semi, and an earth-moving track hoe. A driver turned on the track hoe and drove it down into a long stretch of grass that ran along a hillside—the right of way for the Colonial Pipeline, the largest gasoline pipeline in the U.S. Beneath the ground, a 3-foot-wide steel tube carried roughly 1.4 million barrels of gasoline each day to 50 million Americans in cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
The men were there to conduct repairs. Just over a month before, the pipeline had sprung a leak, forcing a shutdown that caused gasoline reserves on the East Coast to fall from 64 million barrels to 55.5 million, the biggest one-week drop in U.S. history. Prices spiked at the pump in many cities from Atlanta to Jersey City. The leak had been fixed temporarily with a bypass, and now the crew was excavating about 5 miles from the original rupture to rebuild the stretch that had failed. They worked for a local contractor, L.E. Bell Construction, that the pipeline’s owner, Colonial Pipeline Co., had hired many times over the years.
Among the team was Anthony Lee Willingham, a 48-year-old track hoe operator who’d been with L.E. Bell for almost 30 years. He was familiar enough with the routine procedures of pipeline repair to have built a kind of muscle memory. If he was at the wheel—the company hasn’t confirmed this—he would have known to operate the track hoe blade slowly, deliberately, without applying too much pressure. But somehow the blade struck steel, and the fuel ignited.