Tour: A better Whatcom Creek emerges from disaster

BELLINGHAM - About 75 people gathered Wednesday, June 10, to walk the three miles of Whatcom Creek that had been burned and poisoned by hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline on the same date 10 years ago after the rupture of the Olympic Pipe Line.

The gray, lifeless trunks of Douglas fir trees still tower over the stretch of creek where three young lives were lost that day, but the ground beneath them is thick with young trees that may one day be as big as the trees that were destroyed.

And the creek itself flows cleaner and more naturally than it did before the tragedy.

Clare Fogelsong, the city's environmental resources manager, led the tour along with Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust and Whatcom County Council member.

The first stop on the tour was the spot near the city's water treatment plant at the edge of Whatcom Falls Park, where the pipeline suddenly split open and spilled fuel down Hannah Creek and into Whatcom Creek for over an hour before its ignition sent flames roaring up and down the creek.

Fogelsong said recovery wells were dug at the site to get the spilled fuel out of the underground water, and those wells are still in operation today. The water extracted from them is now relatively clean, but some fuel components are still present 10 years later.

The walkers also paused for a moment at the spot where two 10-year-old boys, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, had wandered down into the creek bed to play that day. Nobody knows for sure what happened, but investigators believe the boys may have unwittingly touched off the fire with a butane lighter. Both died of burns.

Before the fire, Weimer said, residents of adjoining homes had few qualms about letting their children wander down into the park.

"A lot of those homes now have fences in their yards," Weimer said.

Fogelsong also explained how the city worked with state and federal agencies to get beyond mere cleanup, using millions in settlement money from the pipeline's owners to rescue much of the creek and its tributaries from decades of human abuse. Natural channels were restored, and logs and boulders were put in place to create better fish habitat.

When one participant asked Fogelsong if the creek is better for salmon than it was before the spill and fire, he replied, "Infinitely."

In the area downstream from the Woburn Street and Valencia Street bridges, the creek now meanders through brushy, natural-looking sandbars that are actually a man-made recreation of what the creek may have been like before its channel was straightened for human convenience. The area swarms with songbirds, and young fishermen with fly rods sought trout in the man-made deep pools, not far downstream from the spot where another young fly fisherman, Liam Wood, was killed by gasoline fumes on the day of the disaster.

Bellingham resident Trisha Adelstein, one of those who joined the guided tour, said she had played along the creek as a child, and she wanted to see how both the fire and the restoration work had changed it.

She said her own son Kenny had been about the same age as the two burned boys, and that had made the episode that much more painful.

"It hits close to home when you've got a kid the same age," she said.

Kenny accompanied his mom on the tour.

"I was nine when it happened," he said. "I just remember walking out my back door and seeing the big cloud of smoke."

Related stories from Bellingham Herald