From the archive: Bellingham firefighter talks about June 10, 1999 pipeline explosion in Whatcom Falls Park
More from the series
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.
A look back at key companies surrounding the Olympic pipeline explosion and where they are today:
At the time of the explosion in 1999, Olympic Pipe Line Co. was owned by three investors. Equilon (a partnership of Shell and Texaco at the time) had a 37.5 percent interest in the company, a supply services company called GATX owned 25 percent, and Arco retained the other 37.5 percent.
As a result of the explosion, those companies and other firms were hit with fines, penalties and other settlements totaling more than $187 million, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham. This includes $61 million in penalties for further safety and inspection improvements, as well as $75 million in a wrongful death lawsuit to the families of Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, two of the youths killed in the explosion. The defendants also reached a private settlement with the family of Liam Wood, the third youth killed in the disaster.
Two Olympic employees were sentenced to jail for violating pipeline employee training laws and a third was put on probation and order to do community service for a violation of the Clean Water Act.
By late 2000 Arco had two-thirds interest in the pipeline, with Equilon having the other third. In early 2001 BP bought Arco, giving it two-thirds interest in the company and one-third Equilon, which was operated by Shell at this point. In March 2003, Olympic filed for bankruptcy but was able to re-emerge.
In 2005 BP bought out Equilon’s interest in the pipeline, becoming sole owner of the pipeline. BP then sold two-thirds interest to Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company. BP is still the operator and will continue to be so through 2015. Since BP has been involved with the pipeline, more than $100 million has been invested in safety and integrity programs, said Mike Abendhoff, a spokesman for BP Cherry Point.
IMCO GENERAL CONSTRUCTION
In the investigation following the explosion, there was speculation that a weak spot in the pipeline was caused by construction damage. It was discovered that Bellingham-based construction company IMCO had worked on city water lines in the area in 1994. It was also disclosed that the city of Bellingham had used construction equipment in the same area a year earlier.
During the investigation, IMCO owners Frank and Patti Imhof consistently denied their workers damaged the pipeline. More crucial to the case, they said at the time, was that Olympic had discovered the weak spot years before the rupture and didn’t fix it.
In 2002 the state Department of Ecology decided not to fine IMCO for alleged construction damage because there was not enough evidence to prove the company or the city caused the damage. Later that year, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report concluding that the explosion was created by a series of mistakes, beginning with IMCO’s excavation project. For five years, Olympic had inadequately inspected the pipeline near the excavation work, which the NTSB said likely damaged the pipeline.
In the past 10 years the Bellingham company has continued to work on major construction projects in the county and in the region, including the widening of portions of Guide Meridian and expansion of the Blaine border truck crossing.