Inadequate pipeline work caused deadly Alabama blast, NTSB says

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A federal investigation released Thursday cited inadequate work by an excavation company as the probable cause of a pipeline explosion that killed two people and slowed the flow of fuel to the Eastern Seaboard in 2016.

Workers unearthing a Colonial Pipeline Co. pipeline that was carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline near Birmingham failed to plan, coordinate and communicate during the job, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Officials said a worker used a piece of heavy machinery to scratch through dirt until a pipeline fitting was damaged, releasing a “wall of gasoline" that caught fire. Such work should have been done by hand, the report said.


The excavation contractor, L.E. Bell Construction Co. of Heflin, Alabama, and Colonial Pipeline, which is based in suburban Atlanta, both instituted safety procedures to prevent a repeat of the deadly accident afterward, the report said.

A fog of smoke covers the trees near an explosion of a Colonial Pipeline in Helena, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

In a statement, Bell Construction Vice President Dan Norton declined to comment on the report, but said the company “continues to be deeply saddened for the families whose lives were forever changed because of this event."

Colonial Pipeline has denied wrongdoing.

In a statement Thursday, Colonial Pipeline said it “has been and will remain committed to a systematic approach to safety that is integrated throughout the company."

One worker died when the blast occurred and a second died weeks later. Four other people were injured.


The accident happened on a pipe that is 36 inches (91 centimeters) in diameter and reaches from Houston to Greensboro, North Carolina, according to the report. The line was transporting gasoline at a maximum flow rate of 58,000 barrels an hour when the breach occurred.

The blaze charred woodlands near the Birmingham suburb of Helena and burned for days. The pipeline was shut down for six days, and it took a few more days for the line to resume its normal flow of products.

Relatives of Anthony Willingham, a Bell Construction employee who died in the blast, filed a federal lawsuit in September accusing the Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline of failing to tell work crews where the pipeline was located. Colonial has disputed allegations in the suit.