Crews test Whatcom Falls groundwater for gasoline from '99 pipeline explosion

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 16, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Fourteen years after the 1999 deadly pipeline rupture and explosion in Whatcom Falls Park, groundwater is being tested to see if gasoline remains and could be seeping into Whatcom Creek, which flows through the park.

The state Department of Ecology allowed Olympic Pipe Line Co. to turn off its water treatment system Wednesday, Oct. 16, to test the groundwater during natural conditions.

Antea Group will monitor the groundwater during the next three weeks as part of restoration efforts in the park.

Antea is the environmental consultant for BP, a minority shareholder in the pipeline and its operator since 2000.

Olympic installed a network of recovery wells and a filtration system after the explosion to catch and treat contaminated water before it reached Whatcom Creek.

"The goal here is to be able to test groundwater under natural conditions," Ecology spokesman Dustin Terpening said of the reason for shutting down the filtration system.

Bryan Taylor, project manager for Antea, said crews will be sampling or gauging 10 wells daily, although they are not all of the wells in the network.

"Those are the critical wells," Taylor said.

The system has treated more than 12 million gallons of water in the past 14 years.

And tests show that the water - a total of 3 million gallons - has met state standards for cleanup sites since November 2008.

The rupture occurred June 10, 1999, near the city's water treatment plant at the edge of Whatcom Falls Park.

The underground pipeline spilled about 237,000 gallons of gasoline down Hannah Creek and into nearby Whatcom Creek for more than an hour before its ignition sent a fireball roaring down the creek.

Three Bellingham youngsters were killed.

The ensuing fires burned for days, scorching 11/2 miles of the creek and about 25 acres of Whatcom Falls Park and surrounding vegetation.

Most of the gasoline burned up in the fire, but some leached into the soil and bedrock, according to Ecology.

"We want to see if there is any gasoline remaining that's going to be drawn out by the groundwater," Terpening said. "We don't believe, based on readings that we have for the past five years, that anything is going to show up but are prepared if there is."

BP will have spill-response equipment in the area should a sheen be seen on the water after the filtration system has been turned off, according to Terpening.

The system can be restarted immediately, he said.

If the resulting tests are satisfactory, the water filtration system will stay off. However, it will be on stand-by for one year so it can be restarted if needed.

If tests show the presence of gasoline, then additional cleanup work could be required.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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