Pipeline memories: Busy creek work suppressed sadness for researcher

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Bellingham pipeline explosion

The June 10, 1999, Olympic pipeline explosion killed three people in Whatcom Falls Park. The tragedy scarred Bellingham, but increased pipeline safety nationwide. Here’s a look back at The Bellingham Herald’s coverage.

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Mark Henderson is a wastewater treatment plant inspector in the Bellingham office of the state Department of Ecology. He led a field team after the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion, and worked in or near Whatcom Creek for six months.

This is his story:

I was having dinner with my cousin about six months after the fire when my emotions hit me.

I realized that evening that I hadn't allowed myself to be open to the deaths of two boys and a young man, or how they had died.

I'd been very busy coordinating and taking samples since the accident. The first several months I'd worked long hours every day, taking samples twice a day and making sure they were sent off for analysis. I loved the fact that I was able to visit some of the most beautiful nooks and crannies in Bellingham every day, places most people who live here don't know about.

Taking water samples and even sediment samples from Whatcom Creek allowed me to see the scorched stones in the creek bed. One of them sits on my desk at work.

To take samples, I had to wade out into the creek, and by wading, I'd stir up the creek bed, and gasoline would float to the surface, either in rainbow or silver sheens.

In the beginning, I was amazed that it had gotten into the gravels at the bottom of the creek, pushing aside up to three feet of water. And I'd find that sheen for months when I took samples.

One area received so much product that the gasoline appeared like vegetable oil, it was so thick. I'd never seen that; never thought it possible.

The safety people checked the air quality every morning there and made me wear a respirator. Small seeps of groundwater at the side of the creek would give rainbows of gasoline. Even in places where there wasn't a visible trickle on the stream bank... moist ground would send out rainbows if you squished (it) with your feet.

Two days after the fire, a bunch of us from the office were recruited to wade the creek and collect and count any dead creatures. We counted thousands of dead eels. I was completely amazed that the usual insects that live on the rocks and gravel were just missing; gone.

If the fire hadn't gotten them, the gasoline burned them and they let go and floated away. I was blown away by that.

While doing these surveys, I got to see parts of the creek I'd never even considered before; parts only visited by neighborhood kids or homeless people.

I was with several people from my office accompanying a fisheries biologist counting carcasses when I was picked to coordinate water sampling with a consultant for Olympic Pipe Line. He and I drove from the fishing derby pond to Whatcom Waterway, stopping at various places to look for suitable, accessible sites to take water-quality samples.

I was along not only because I worked for the Department of Ecology, but for my local knowledge, since I'd grown up in Bellingham and spent time in Whatcom Falls Park. I remember we walked to the edge of a steep slope that led down to the creek, not all that far from the source of the fuel, up Hannah Creek, and the trees were still smoking and a DNR firefighter was putting out the last of the fires.

I think that was the first time it started to sink in that something alive and massive had taken the lives of three boys just a few days earlier. But I was working and with a stranger, so I couldn't cry or show emotions, other than awe.

Pretty much after that moment it all became work and responsibility, and I didn't access those thoughts much if at all until my dinner with my cousin.

She and her husband live around the corner from one of the kids that made it all the way home after being burned. Just as we were leaving her house to go home, my cousin described the burned clothes on the front lawn, and I saw the incredible enveloping sadness she was experiencing, and it hit me.

All of those emotions I'd felt, but not expressed, rushed up on me. It'd been a job until then.

I'd been too busy to think about any impacts other than to the trees and stream. I was sad about the impact to them, but never as sad as that moment at my cousin's front door.