Pipeline memories: Ecology worker haunted by memories from ground zero

Norm Peck works for the state Department of Ecology's Toxics Cleanup Program. He worked in the Bellevue office when the Bellingham pipeline exploded 10 years ago, and now works in the program's Yakima office.

This is his story:

He was an older man who reminded me of my grandfather.

I had first met him at the Olympic Pipe Line Maplewood spill, the first release discovered from failed pressure-sensor fittings to detect pipeline leaks, in 1986.

We'd met again when a construction company employee had damaged the pipeline in Tukwila and caused a rupture a couple of years later.

Today, there were tears in his eyes, and a haunted look. We only spoke briefly, he of the deaths of two children and one young man, struggling in his mind with his long-held belief that moving gasoline by pipe rather than barge or truck had saved a lot of lives.

A year later he was in prison. I wondered what cherished illusions of mine might haunt me with the shock of their demise ... and when.

I know I had a haunted look in my eyes, too, as I walked away from ground zero. There were still fires on the ground and stream bank that couldn't be extinguished. Something very primal in me wondered if something like this was where the Christian vision of Hell came from.

It was Incident Day 5, and I'd arrived, been issued my responder's photo ID, and met with Incident Command in the role of providing technical assistance, and preparing to take over the long-term cleanup after the emergency phase was concluded.

I thought those days were over by the mid-1970s, when rivers caught fire and the earth burned before my eyes. Grief and shock, right beside knowing I MUST do all I can to stay steady, be absolutely certain this one is done RIGHT.

Over the next days and weeks, I watched as upper Hannah Creek grew to a hundred feet wide as more and more gasoline-saturated soil was dug out, then replaced, and a new creek channel built "from scratch."

Holes deepened to expose the very bedrock ... that still reeked of gasoline.

The fires slowly went out. The overpowering, thick gasoline fumes dissipated as more saturated soil was hauled away.

The Emergency Operations Center went away, the meetings grew smaller and monthly. New contaminated seeps showed up on the steep lower reaches of Hannah Creek, then disappeared again.

Days stretched into weeks, months and years as - even after the massive removal of soil and groundwater failed to hold the contamination in groundwater in check, until finally it stopped creeping forward - the smell of gasoline disappeared from the seeps along the banks of Whatcom Creek. There were no more rainbow sheens in that creek when you stepped in a soft spot on the lower bank.

I was on-site doing geotechnical borings on Sept. 11, 2001, when airplanes began flying into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, when the passengers ended the flight destined for another building (the White House?) in a ball of fire in a Pennsylvania farm field.

The shock and grief of that day, too, now resides in memory very close to Whatcom Creek; figuring out where to place the last groundwater wells that would finally contain the plume, beside fretting about whether my brother was at the Pentagon this week or next.

I finally called, and was deeply relieved to learn that the meeting he'd been scheduled for the next week had been presumptively called off. It let me give my almost-undivided attention to the Whatcom Creek incident.

I've turned the final closure over to my co-workers at the Northwest Regional Office ... it's now a much more normal case of a shrinking contaminant plume, and one day soon that small piece of the planet will be healed enough to be better left to nature than subjected to more intrusive meddling by us mere mortals. And that is as it should be.

But there's a flicker of the memory of that first day every time I put a gas pump nozzle in a gas tank. I did after all have a hand in creating the monster, as well as healing the path of its destruction.

I feel deep gratitude to all those I was gifted to work with: Clare Fogelsong for the city of Bellingham; all the Ecology staff at the Bellingham field office, especially Mark Henderson, Steve Hood, Joan Pelley and Mary O'Herron, who stepped up to keep a watchful eye, a thoughtful mind and willing hand on-site when it was needed, after the emergency became small enough to fall below the press horizon (most of the time) and helped bring all the little details together to make the whole thing work.