Most Bellingham Herald readers are aware of the June 10, 1999, Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham. As a physician in our community for more than two decades, Frank was seeing a patient just before 3:30 p.m. on that fateful day when the room literally shook and the lights flickered – then it happened a second time. What none of us knew then was that three young men’s lives would be lost because of that pipeline failure – Liam Wood, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas. The lives of their families have never been the same.
Readers should be aware that Whatcom County is home to not only the Olympic Pipeline, but also the Puget Sound Pipeline, an extension of the Trans Mountain pipeline run by Kinder Morgan. The share of oil flowing into Washington by pipeline has dramatically increased in recent years. Now, with the lifting of the federal ban on crude oil export, Washington state is at a critical juncture. Our legislators can act this legislative session on House Bill 1611 to create accountability to communities, or they can allow oil and pipeline corporations to do as they please.
In addition to the devastating loss of life and property damage suffered during the 1999 explosion, 227,000 gallons of oil flowed into Whatcom Creek. A similar crude oil pipeline spill in a community like Ferndale could kill countless more individuals and cause a spill in or near the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. As a member of the Reserve’s Citizen Stewardship Committee, William understands the important ecological functions of the reserve – a site with popular public beaches that provides habitat for our salmon, orca and many unique marine birds – and knows an oil spill could create an irreparable environmental disaster.
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Moving oil by pipeline is risky. In January alone, major spills from pipelines occurred in Texas (600,000 gallons), Iowa (138,600 gallons) and Saskatchewan, Canada (52,830 gallons).
The Canadian government recently gave the green light to triple the capacity of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, despite widespread opposition in lower British Columbia. This oil would load onto barges or tankers at Burnaby, bringing a sevenfold increase in tar sands ships traveling through the shared waters of the Salish Sea. Whatcom County is also targeted to increase pipeline shipments for export through piers at Cherry Point.
More crude oil is traveling by pipeline through Washington state than ever before. In 2003, pipelines accounted for 9 percent of overall crude oil coming into the state, while in 2016, it accounted for 28 percent. This is a significant increase. We know because in 2015 the legislature passed the Oil Transportation Safety Act, which requires reporting on oil transportation and public documentation of how oil moves through our backyards.
Now, two years later, the legislature again has an opportunity to act, building on that information to create protections for Washington communities. House Bill 1611 would ensure fair review and public input on projects to build new oil pipelines or significantly expand capacity of existing pipelines. It would also ensure reliable funding to clean up spills and create protections for our Salish Sea.
No less important, our legislators and local policymakers need to make clean energy a reality. In the end, we will only be safe when we make ending our dependency on fossil fuels a priority.
Today, we call on Washington legislators to pass HB 1611.
Dr. Frank James is a physician in Whatcom County. William Beers is a retired biomedical scientist and member of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee. They wrote this for the Stand Up to Oil coalition.
Watch 2009 documentary created by the City of Bellingham to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1999 pipeline explosion that took the life of three young people in Whatcom Creek Park.