Diesel spill that turned Columbia creek red blamed on government subcontractor

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Diesel fuel turned a creek red in downtown Columbia in early December 2021. This is what the tributary of the Congaree River looked like after the diesel spill. The tributary is just below the Gervais Street bridge.

An early December diesel fuel spill that turned a tributary of the Congaree River red has been traced to a government contractor whose crews were replacing a generator at the Strom Thurmond federal building.

Pyramid Contracting of Irmo is listed in a federal database of oil spills as the responsible company. The U.S. General Services Administration said a contractor “assumed responsibility for the spill’’ and cleanup efforts were launched after the leak occurred Dec. 3.

Jim Ott, a senior project manager with Pyramid, said a subcontractor hired by Pyramid allowed the diesel to leak.

“Someone just made a mistake,’’ Ott said, declining to name the subcontractor.

A General Services Administration spokesman said the agency is monitoring any impacts on the environment and working with the contractor to “identify all causes of the spill.’’

Ott, in an interview with The State, said diesel never reached the Congaree River, where the creek flows, and the fuel has been cleaned up.

State regulators initially said 800 gallons leaked onto the ground and into a storm drain, making the release a relatively large one for Columbia.

Emergency response crews found that stormwater pipes and drainage conduits connect to the creek from the source of the release, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

But Ott said only about 200 gallons actually got into the creek. The rest of the diesel was contained at the site where it spilled, he told The State.

“It never left the building,’’ he said.

This month’s spill made for a vivid scene in downtown Columbia. The unnamed creek, which normally is a blue or muddy brown color, turned red for miles and the odor of diesel was easy to detect along much of the stream.

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This creek in Columbia’s Memorial Park turned red after a diesel fuel spill Dec. 3, 2021. Sammy Fretwell, The State

The creek runs through Memorial Park and underneath Gervais Street before re-emerging from a pipe near the Gervais bridge along the Congaree. The creek flows under a popular boardwalk and viewing area for the Congaree River below the State Museum.

The leak occurred as the subcontractor was removing service lines that served an old diesel generator at the Strom Thurmond building on Assembly Street, Ott said. The diesel-powered generator is being replaced with a natural-gas fired generator, Ott said.

Diesel, some of which is dyed red to identify the type, is often used to fuel trucks, farm equipment and generators. It is one of the most toxic types of oil for fish and other animals that live in water, according to a fact sheet from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Small spills of under 5,000 gallons are often rapidly diluted in open water, but they can be a problem in confined, shallow waters, the fact sheet says.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which investigates oil spills that affect wildlife, had no immediate comment Monday on the Dec. 3 fuel spill. But Ott said diesel “was removed from the stream within 72 hours. There was absolutely no impact to wildlife or the environment.’’

Pyramid is a construction company that operates in three states. Among other things, it specializes in commercial, federal and defense work. The company says it supports sustainable construction and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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An oily sheen covers the surface of a creek that runs through Columbia’s Memorial Park on Dec. 3, 2021. A diesel spill discolored the creek.

This story was originally published December 20, 2021 11:03 AM.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the S.C. Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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