Protesters of a massive gasoline spill in Huntersville gathered outside the Lake Norman home of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on Sunday, some willing to risk arrest by standing on his lawn.
Two teenage ATV riders chanced upon the spill in Mecklenburg County’s Oehler Nature Preserve and reported the leak in August.
Colonial Pipeline Co. eventually reported that almost 18 times more gasoline leaked from its pipe than its original estimate, according to a June 15 settlement with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
The protesters — part of the the national Sunrise Movement organization focused on stopping climate change — criticized Tillis and other officials for their inaction against Colonial.
“For Thom Tillis, this is a 1.2 million-gallon gasoline leak near his house,” 19-year-old UNC Charlotte senior Jeremy Goldsby said. “How in the world did you let it slide?”
Earlier in the afternoon, dozens of activists and local residents gathered for a teach-in and rally at Veterans Park in downtown Huntersville before about 65 Sunrise youth activists from across the Carolinas boarded a bus for a nearly 5-mile drive to Tillis’ lakefront home.
“This is a critical moment for North Carolina and the country,” 16-year-old Lanvey Pham, of Charlotte, said at the rally.
Protesters in front of Tillis home
The group chanted “We’re wide awake and in the streets!” as they approached Tillis’ home shortly before 5 p.m. Soon after, a neighbor came outside and said, “He’s on your side!” to the group, but the protesters silenced him with their chants.
Most of the protesters stood on the street in front of Tillis’ home, hollering and beating drums. Two police officers stood about 50 feet away from the group.
Three protesters went onto Tillis’ lawn. Two of them held up a banner that said, “Colonial and Tillis choose profits over people.” The other protester held a sign that read “No Climate, No Deal.”
The lawn sprinklers turned on about 10 minutes later. The three protesters got doused but sat peacefully.
The group in the street shouted “Hey Tillis! Hey Biden! Step up. People are dying!” to the beat of the drums.
Shortly after 6 p.m., officers warned the group if they did not leave soon, they’d be arrested. The protesters on the lawn said they did not plan to leave and expected to be arrested.
At 7:30 p.m., a large group of protesters left aboard a shuttle bus but not the three on the lawn, who eventually moved to the Tillis driveway.
Tillis did not appear to be home, and it’s unknown if his family was inside.
In an email to the Observer on Sunday evening, Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said “members of Congress have no jurisdictional regulatory authority over what is a local and state regulatory issue.”
“The Sunrise Movement is an extremist organization that is attempting to take over the Democratic Party in their quest to turn America into a radical socialist country,” Keylin said in the email. “If they think Senator Tillis is going to somehow give into their demands to support a socialist agenda like the Green New Deal, then bless their hearts.”
Fuel spill among NC’s worst
The spill in Huntersville was among the worst in the state, Michael Regan, then-NCDEQ secretary, said in September. Regan now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Colonial could face daily fines of up to $200,000 per violation if it fails to improve the way it detects leaks in its U.S. pipeline system, after the massive gasoline leak in Huntersville, according to a recent settlement in the case with the U.S. government.
The agreement orders Colonial to find and use a better leak detection system across its entire network, citing several newly disclosed leaks over the years, the Observer reported.
In response to Sunday’s protest, a Colonial Pipeline Co. spokesman issued a statement saying the company “remains committed to protecting human health and the environment. We communicate regularly with community members, local leaders, and regulators as we continue to make progress on product recovery and site remediation.
“Our dedicated response website serves as an up-to-date information resource, and we will continue our efforts to respond to questions in a timely manner, meet with residents, and host site visits for elected officials and media,” according to the statement.
“These communication efforts are in addition to more than 10,000 pages of data and public documents readily available, weekly meetings, and monthly updates with state and federal regulators.
“We appreciate the continued dialogue with the Huntersville community, regulators, and elected leaders and we’re committed to regaining the trust of our neighbors who have been affected by this event,” the spokesman said. “Colonial is steadfast in our commitment to being at the site for as long as it takes to recover product and safely remediate this area.”