Fines from 1999 pipeline tragedy helped pay for these environmental projects and parks

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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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June 10, 1999, was a beautiful, sunny afternoon that careened into chaos when a deadly fireball raced down Whatcom Creek — fueled by 237,000 gallons of gasoline that had leaked from a ruptured pipeline buried under Whatcom Falls Park.

Three young people died as a result.

The ensuing fires burned for days, scorching 1.5 miles of the creek nearly to Interstate 5 and about 26 acres of Whatcom Falls Park and surrounding vegetation. Fish, insects and wildlife in the area were decimated. Water temperature in the creek jumped to 90 degrees in seconds.

Hannah Creek, where it met Whatcom Creek, also burned. Unburned gasoline also harmed the environment.

In all, more than 100,000 fish — lamprey, trout and salmon — were killed, according to the city of Bellingham.

About 3,000 birds and small mammals, such as otter, beavers and red-tail hawks, died as well.

The leak and explosion caused an estimated $58.4 million in property damage, according to the Pipeline Safety Tracker on the Pro Publica journalism website.

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Red lines on a map with Woburn Street vertically in the center outlines the areas on Whatcom Creek damaged June 10, 1999, in the Olympic pipeline explosion. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Olympic Pipe Line Co., which then owned the pipeline, was hit with fines, penalties and settlements that totaled more than $187 million, according to the Pipeline Safety Trust. That’s in addition to the money it paid for emergency response.

The city also received money to pay for ongoing maintenance and monitoring of Whatcom Creek, including for restoration projects.

Some of the fines and penalties went into the greening of Bellingham and Whatcom County in the form of environmental projects and acquisitions of parks and open spaces.

“The habitat-related settlement funds allowed the city and community to make significant investments in the local environment, with a goal of recovering the natural resources that were damaged during the fuel spill, fire and cleanup,” Renee LaCroix, assistant Public Works Director for the city of Bellingham, told The Bellingham Herald.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in the three major stream systems running through Bellingham — Padden, Whatcom and Squalicum creeks — and the marine nearshore,” she said. “With proper maintenance and stewardship, the ecological value of these projects will continue to increase over time — benefiting future generations for years to come.”

It’s been 20 years since that day, but remnants of that fierce fire remain, including for newer residents who might not know what they’re looking at.

Dead trees remain near Whatcom Creek near the site of the 1999 pipeline explosion in Whatcom Falls Park Friday. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

“People can still see burned or dead trees along Hannah and Whatcom Creek, if they look closely,” LaCroix said.

There have been a number of projects to help Whatcom Creek and nearby areas recover, including through federal and state penalties.

Here’s where some of the dollars went and the public changes they paid for:

Federal penalties

A total of $10 million in federal penalties came back to Whatcom County.

Here’s how some of the money was used:

$4 million went to a trust account to fund the Pipeline Safety Trust, which advocates for safer pipelines.

$4 million was used to create a fund that generates interest for the city of Bellingham. Money from the interest is used to improve habitats inside city limits. The principal can’t be touched for 50 years.

The fund has generated $1.6 million in interest so far, LaCroix said.

Of that, LaCroix said, $840,000 has been spent on large-scale restoration projects, including Post Point Lagoon, Squalicum Creek re-route, Willow Spring, Red Tail Reach and Little Squalicum Estuary.

The city used much of that money to pay for a feasibility study or preliminary design, which in turn allowed it to gain grant funding to pay for the rest of the restoration projects, according to LaCroix.

The money also was used to pay for planning documents, including the Habitat Restoration Technical Assessment. That, in turn, will guide how the settlement money will be used for projects in the future.

A view of the trees over Whatcom Creek near the site of the 1999 pipeline explosion in Whatcom Falls Park Friday. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

$1 million went to restore Squalicum Creek and create the new Squalicum Creek Park.

$1 million went to the nonprofit Whatcom Land Trust for salmon habitat improvements along the south fork of the Nooksack River.

State penalties

The state Department of Ecology fined Olympic $7.5 million but settled for $2.5 million after the company filed for bankruptcy.

Here’s where that money went:

$1 million to the Whatcom Land Trust to buy and protect property at Point Whitehorn, south of Birch Bay.

$500,000 to the land trust to buy and protect land along Haynie Creek, southeast of Blaine.

$500,000 to the land trust to buy and protect land at Lily Point, located on the southeast corner of Point Roberts.

$300,000 to the Bellingham Fire Department so it could improve its emergency communications system.

$200,000 to Ecology for “geographic response plans” to prepare for oil spills from trains and pipelines throughout the state.

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Bellingham resident Kelly Miller looks at the devastated Whatcom Creek after a gasoline pipeline exploded, sending a fireball down the creek June 10, 1999. Staff The Bellingham Herald file


The families of Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, two 10-year-old friends who died, received $75 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Wade’s family donated $400,000 to Wade King Elementary School and $4 million to Western Washington University for athletic scholarships and recreational programs, which in turn named its student recreation center for the boy.

For a time, Stephen’s family members were involved with the Pipeline Safety Trust. They also contributed to a number of local causes over time, including a $100,000 grant to help Northwest Youth Services find a new home.

There was a private, undisclosed settlement with the family of Liam Wood, the 18-year-old Sehome High School graduate who was overcome by fumes while fly-fishing in Whatcom Creek and drowned.

His parents donated time and money to the Liam Wood Flyfishers and River Guardians, which aims to pass on Liam’s love of fishing to youths, students and community members, including through a class Western Washington University.

Tomorrow: ‘There’s a good chance an underground pipeline is near your home.’ How do you check?

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.