By TAYLOR BECK and TOM SPIGOLON
The Covington News
COVINGTON, Ga. — Days after a May 7 cyberattack forced Colonial Pipeline to halt its operation, many gas stations across Newton County and the state of Georgia were left with empty tanks.
Fear among motorists led to a much worse gas shortage than what state officials anticipated, prompting Gov. Brian Kemp to urge everyone to remain calm.
“Only get the gasoline you need,” he said during a news conference Wednesday. “Please do not go out and fill up every five-gallon tank you have. Doing so will only mean the shortage will last longer.”
Colonial Pipeline is a 5,500-mile pipeline that supplies almost half of the gasoline on the East Coast. It was forced to shut down May 7 after a ransomware attack that has been traced to hackers operating out of Russia or Eastern Europe. The company reportedly paid hackers up to $5 million to get the pipeline operational again.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Colonial Pipeline announced its operations were finally able to continue, but company officials said service won’t be fully restored for several days, according to Capitol Beat News Service.
By Thursday morning, several stations in Newton County were reportedly out of gas. Where gas was available, motorists were paying around $3 per gallon, on average, for fuel.
Officials said an increase in prices was not a surprise as the cost to transport fuel went up after the pipeline shut down. However, Kemp signed an executive order Tuesday to combat any price gouging. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said his office has received more than 300 complaints of price gouging, according to Capitol Beat News Service.
“No one should be taking advantage of consumers trying to pursue their daily activities,” Carr said.
The governor’s order also suspended collection of the state gasoline tax and lifted the usual weight limits on fuel delivery trucks.
In wake of the gas shortage, city and county entities are working to conserve fuel supplies and trying to keep the people of Newton County calm.
Covington Public Works Director Kevin Sorrow said the city had implemented temporary policies for its various departments Tuesday to help preserve gas.
“We have requested that employees do the following: 1) mission essential driving; 2) eliminate idling; 3) only fill tanks to half capacity and only if needed; and 4) use some of the low-use vehicles that have fuel,” Sorrow stated.
Sorrow said public safety calls would, of course, take priority.
Chief Jeremy Holmes of the Covington Fire Department said his fire engines run on diesel fuel that has not been in short supply.
The department responds to fire calls and other emergency calls over 15 square miles, he said.
However, the department has temporarily halted its annual check of fire hydrant water pressure within the city.
“We have just cut back unnecessary travel,” he said.
Covington Police Capt. Ken Malcom issued the following statement to The Covington News late Thursday afternoon:
“We have access to fuel for our public safety fleet. We can assure our citizens that police services will not be interrupted in any way because of the gas shortage.
“We encourage citizens to monitor Atlanta area news for up-to-date information on metro locations where fuel is available. You can download apps like ‘Wex Connect’ which shows gas stations that have fuel available.”
Piedmont Newton Hospital and its EMS service, which is now being contracted through Priority Ambulance, are operating as usual without much disruption from the gas shortage.
“Piedmont Newton Hospital has procedures in place to ensure the continuity of patient care in the event of natural or man-made interruptions to normal operations,” a Piedmont Newton spokesperson stated. “Our priority always is to provide excellent care to the patients we serve, and we monitor situations like this very closely working with our system partners to ensure our employees remain informed of potential disruptions.”
Amanda Jennings, who is director of Marketing and Communications for Priority Ambulance, said the EMS service was monitoring the situation and preparing in the event the shortage lasts longer than expected.
“National EMS is not currently seeing significant impacts from the pipeline disruption to our operations; however, we are monitoring the situation closely and preparing in case the shortage lasts longer than currently anticipated as the pipeline restores service,” she said. “National EMS uses company gas cards at commercial gas stations. Ambulances have continued to be able to find gas stations for fuel this week with only minor inconveniences of having to pass over some stations where gas is temporarily unavailable. The company has instituted gas conversation strategies, and crews are filling up ambulance gas tanks more frequently.”
In a statement to The News, Newton County Schools Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said the district has not been directly impacted by the gas shortage but noted officials would keep an eye on the situation.
“School system staff are monitoring the conditions related to the Colonial Pipeline shutdown; we have been in contact with our school system fuel provider and based on that conversation, we are confident there will not be an interruption to transportation services at this time,” Fuhrey stated Thursday. “Should [there be] a need to make school schedule adjustments, we will notify our employees and families as soon as possible.
“It was certainly welcome news to learn that the Pipeline has resumed operation, and we are hopeful that this crisis will end soon,” she continued. “Parents with specific questions should contact their child’s principal, and employees should reach out to their immediate supervisor for assistance as needed.”
Spokesman Bryan Fazio said the Newton County government has a contingency plan that includes working with state and local emergency management agencies to ensure critical services would continue in case shortages continue.
However, he said Thursday afternoon that this week’s shortages had not affected any parts of the county government, including emergency vehicles like those used by the fire department.
The government’s central fueling station for its vehicles also had plenty of supply, Fazio said.
“All our vehicles are fueled,” he said. “We have enough to last us awhile.”
Also as of Thursday afternoon, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office had not been impacted by the gas shortage in any significant way. Spokesperson Caitlin Jett said the shortage had changed how the sheriff’s office patrol unit would operate, but a contingency plan implemented by Sheriff Ezell Brown “ensures the Office of the Sheriff will continue to operate efficiently and effectively, regardless of the circumstances.”
“Our deputies are still answering calls to service in their assigned area,” Jett said. “As always, our top priority is to serve and protect the Newton County community.”
Brown encouraged residents to remain calm during the difficult time.
“I advise the citizens of Newton County to not panic and travel only if needed,” the sheriff said. “Together, we will get through this.”
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information is received.