ATLANTA — Robeson residents panicking over the prospect of a gasoline shortage can exhale.
Gasoline should begin flowing again today through a temporary bypass on a critical pipeline after a major leak in Alabama forced a shutdown that led to surging fuel prices and scattered gas shortages across the South, a company official said Tuesday.
The roughly 500-foot section of pipe serving as the bypass is now complete, but supply disruptions may continue for days, Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker told The Associated Press.
“When Line 1 restarts, it will take several days for the fuel delivery supply chain to return to normal. As such, some markets served by Colonial Pipeline may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions. Colonial continues to move as much gasoline, diesel and jet fuel as possible and will continue to do so until markets return to normal,” Colonial said in a statement.
In Robeson County, many gas stations had bags or “Out of Order” signs covering some or all of their pumps. Other gas stations limited the amount of fuel each customer could purchase. Prices rose to about $2.20 per gallon in Lumberton. The average price per gallon today in North Carolina was $2.22.
Attorney General Roy Cooper has issued subpoenas to five North Carolina gas stations as part of investigations into claims of price gouging, or the practice of raising prices during a crisis. None are in Robeson County.
In a statement, Gov. Pat McCrory said it may take “several days for fuel delivery to return to normal in North Carolina.” In the meantime, he said many gas stations are running out of fuel because people are topping off their tanks or filling up more often. On Monday, he asked state agencies to limit fuel use and on Tuesday asked the public to follow suit.
“We’ve successfully weathered fuel shortages before and we will do it again,” McCrory said. “Now is the time to pull together as a state and to conserve fuel when it’s possible. We look forward to returning to business as usual in the near future.”
Alabama state workers discovered the leak Sept. 9 when they noticed a strong gasoline odor and sheen on a man-made retention pond, along with dead vegetation, according to a report by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The preliminary report does not identify the cause as the federal investigation continues. It wasn’t initially possible to pinpoint the leak, partly because highly flammable benzene and gasoline vapors prevented firefighters and inspectors from approaching the site for days.
The company has acknowledged that since the spill was spotted, between 252,000 gallons and 336,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from its pipeline near Helena, Alabama. That’s no more than 37 truckloads at an industry-average 9,000 gallons per tank.
But because the leak forced a critical pipeline to shut down, its impact was far greater. The pipeline section that failed, built in 1963, runs from Mississippi to Atlanta.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Kathleen Foody, Alex Sanz, Jay Reeves, Bruce Smith and Matthew Brown and Managing Editor Sarah Willets contributed to this report.