BELLINGHAM - On a Sunday night three days after the June 10, 1999 pipeline explosion, state Department of Ecology employee Richard Grout grabbed boots and sneaked out to see the blast zone firsthand, before government officials could block off the site.
He ran across two men working there who were Vietnam War veterans.
"They said, 'This is like where we use napalm,'" Grout, head of Ecology's local office, recently recalled.
Residents won't ever forget the trauma of the explosion that killed three people and torched a path through Whatcom Falls Park, but slowly, nature is forgetting.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
In some places, the only obvious signs of the fireball that tore down Hannah and Whatcom creeks are charred, leafless trees. Now they're providing habitat for woodpeckers and at least one eagle nest near Hannah Creek. Some dead trees crashed into the creek, forming pools where salmon can thrive.
In other places, city-led projects have created a more natural and healthy environment than existed before the disaster. Still, there is work to do. Ten years after the 16-inch pipeline ruptured and spilled, 237,000 gallons of unleaded regular gasoline, the oil company is still pumping out groundwater polluted with gas. Government agencies are forcing them to do the work until that gas is gone, but nobody knows when that'll be, Grout said.
"In about 10 years, there's still just very, very tiny parts per billion that are left," said Mike Abendhoff, spokesman for BP, the oil company that now manages the pipeline. "I don't know if we ever get to zero."
REMEMBERING THE DAMAGE
The explosion blew up Hannah Creek, which crosses under an access road between the city's water treatment plant and its water-storage tanks, and turned culverts into craters. The fireball followed gas that spilled from the pipe break, down Hannah Creek and then down Whatcom Creek, scorching a line 1.5 miles long, nearly reaching Interstate 5 and burning a total of 25 acres.
Ecology employees Steve Hood and Mark Henderson spent days walking up and down the creek, collecting and counting animal carcasses. Some species, like small freshwater eels, were in balls of hundreds of dead, and it wasn't possible to count them all.
What the fire didn't destroy, the unburned gasoline did.
"The gasoline killed everything," said Renee LaCroix, environmental coordinator at Bellingham Public Works. "We had thousands of dead fish, thousands of dead everything."
Field staff collected or saw more than 100,000 dead fish in the creek, and all aquatic life in three miles of the creek was killed by gas, fumes, heat or fire.
And fire destroyed shading, which opened the door for invasive species, like blackberries and morning glory, which further damaged the environment, LaCroix said.
Henderson remembers walking in the creek and watching as gas seeped from the sediment below and pooled on the surface. Immediately after the explosion, governments ordered pipeline owner Olympic Pipe Line Co. to start repairs and clean up.
"They literally had people out there with rakes turning over rocks to release the gasoline," Henderson said.
Months later, negotiations over restoration would begin, and they'd take years and cost the company millions of dollars. The company would eventually face civil and criminal fines from both the state and federal governments. It filed for bankruptcy. Employees did jail time.
HEALING AND HABITAT CREATION
In fall 2008, contractors working for the city of Bellingham finished a project along Whatcom Creek called Redtail Reach (named after a nearby redtail hawk that survived the blast and still lives there today). They excavated roughly 2,300 dump truck loads of soil from past creek dredging. They turned a straight stream channel into a meandering creek with islands, quiet pools, native vegetation and logjams.
The project, built on land the government forced Olympic to purchase and turn over, is a stone's throw from the Haskell Business Park, off Meador Avenue just east of I-5. It cost $1.2 million to design, permit and build, all paid by the company.
It's the final major project stemming from the disaster, although regular maintenance by the Washington Conservation Corps, crucial to the creek's health, will continue for years.
The corps rips out invasive species and replants native species along Whatcom Creek's banks, even in areas that weren't scorched. The native plants provide essential nutrients for small but still visible invertebrates, which support salmon.
"We can do flashy projects with contractors, but without maintenance and removing invasive species, it doesn't matter," LaCroix said. She was hired immediately after the explosion, and, until recently, pipeline-disaster-related work has swallowed about half of her average work day.
Just up from Redtail Reach, the Cemetery Creek and Salmon Park projects, completed in 2006, created a natural stream environment out of what had been an abused creek. Cemetery Creek was essentially just a drainage ditch, LaCroix said. Now, 63 species of birds live there, and crews are finding in salmon-catching boxes hundreds of small fish returning to sea, said Brenna Forester, monitoring and restoration intern at Public Works. At Cemetery Creek, construction crews built a new stream channel and three ponds. Crews will for a decade monitor the project's success, documenting everything from the structure of the stream to wildlife and plants, she said.
In the end, the disaster destroyed habitat projects that were already under way, but money from it funded projects that had been planned but not budgeted, Hood said.
The disaster also refocused the community's attention on the creek, and resulted in more care both from the government and residents, LaCroix said.
"Up 'til that fire Whatcom Creek had been forgotten by most of Bellingham," she said.
WHERE THE MONEY WENT
After the gasoline pipeline owned by Olympic Pipe Line Co. leaked and exploded on June 10, 1999, the pipeline owners faced immediate repair and cleanup work, a long-term restoration plan and criminal and civil fines from the federal and state governments. As far as how much it cost oil and pipeline companies for immediate repairs and restoration, nobody knows, said Mike Abendhoff, spokesman for BP, which now manages the pipeline. Work was done before BP took over in late 2000, he said. Since it took over, the company has spent over $100 million on the pipeline, but he didn't have numbers for costs directly as a result of the disaster.
"I would say that this is probably the most inspected and tested line anywhere in this country right now," he said.
A total of $10 million in federal penalties came back into Whatcom County. Here's where it went:
$4 million to a trust account to fund the Pipeline Safety Trust, which educates and advocates for safer pipelines.
$4 million to a fund to generate interest for the city of Bellingham. The interest money is for habitat improvements inside city limits. The principal can't be touched until 50 years have passed. So far, about $384,000 has been spent on four projects: Padden Creek, Post Point, Willow Springs and Red Tail Reach.
$1 million to restore Squalicum Creek and create the new Squalicum Creek Park.
$1 million to nonprofit Whatcom Land Trust, which must use the money for salmon habitat improvements along the south fork of the Nooksack River. That project hasn't happened yet.
The state Department of Ecology issued a $7.5 million fine, which was the largest in the agency's history, said Richard Grout, manager of the Bellingham field office. But Olympic Pipe Line Co. filed for bankruptcy, and for a while the state was concerned it wouldn't see a dime. In the end, they settled for $2.5 million. Here's what happened to it:
$1 million to the Whatcom Land Trust for the purchase and protection of property at Point Whitehorn, south of Birch Bay.
$500,000 to the land trust to purchase and protect land along Haynie Creek, southeast of Blaine.
$500,000 to the land trust to buy and protect land at Lily Point, at the southeast corner of Point Roberts.
$300,000 to the Bellingham Fire Department to improve its emergency communications system.
$200,000 stayed at Ecology to pay for geographic response plans to prepare for pipeline disasters around the state.
SOURCE: State Department of Ecology, BP
FOLLOW THE RECOVERY
To read a summary of new reports about the environmental recovery of the damaged area, go to cob.org/government, click on "meetings" and then click on the June 1 agenda. The summary is under the "AB18448" link.