ATLANTA – 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 limit the impact of the interruption on the other line.
Colonial Pipeline said supplies have either been delivered or are on their way to locations in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Still, some motorists discovered bone-dry pumps.
Lindsey Paluka, 28, stopped at a Shell gas station in the East Atlanta neighborhood only to find a gas pump handle covered by a black garbage bag.
"I'm definitely on empty, so I'm going to have to figure something out," she said.
Alpharetta, Georgia-based Colonial has acknowledged that between 252,000 gallons and 336,000 gallons 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.
According to a preliminary report, it wasn't possible to immediately pinpoint the leak, partly because highly flammable benzene and gasoline vapors hung in the air and prevented firefighters, company officials and anyone else from being near the site for more than three days.
State workers discovered the leak when they noticed a strong gasoline odor and sheen on a man-made retention pond, along with dead vegetation nearby, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in the report.
The report does not identify the cause of the leak. The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is investigating the leak in a section of the pipeline constructed in 1963, it said.
Environmentalist David Butler said no fuel made it into the nearby Cahaba River.
From an ecological standpoint, the spill couldn't have happened at a better place or time because the terrain funneled the fuel into the pond and the water was low enough in the small lake to enable it to hold the gas, said Butler, of Cahaba Riverkeeper.
"We averted a disaster this time," said Butler, who has been to the spill site and is monitoring the response.
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. In a statement Monday evening it said it expects the temporary pipeline to be running by the end of the week with no specific day given.
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, and a steady stream of trucks came and went through the gate.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley toured Colonial Pipeline's emergency response center, located in a luxury resort hotel about 12 miles from the pipeline breach, and spent much of a news conference Monday praising the company's response. A disaster drill was coincidentally held last year near the scene of the spill, he said, and that helped the company plan and execute a response that included about 700 people so far.
Bentley said gas prices in parts of the state rose 20 cents over the weekend, but the governor said he didn't consider that price gouging.
"It changes overnight sometimes that much," he said.
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, Tennessee, area, the price of regular gas jumped 6 cents in one day, AAA reported.
In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper urged North Carolina consumers to report gas prices that seem unreasonably high. Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said investigators are checking reports of gas being sold at $5.89 a gallon and another offered at more than $4 a gallon.
A North Carolina law makes it illegal to overly inflate prices for critical goods and services during the emergency or abnormal market disruption declared on Friday. Violators can be fined up to $5,000.