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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.
The United States has the largest network of pipelines for the transportation of crude oil, refined products and highly volatile liquids in the world, according to pipeline101.com.
As of 2016, the country had more than 2.7 million miles of pipeline — 48,011 miles of it within the Evergreen State, according to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
“There’s a good chance an underground pipeline is near your home,” Deputy Director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management John Gargett told The Bellingham Herald. “You see pipeline signs all over and in yards around town. Shuksan Middle school is built with the Trans Mountain Pipeline on school property.”
Gargett isn’t trying to alarm anyone — especially not in a community remembering the 20th anniversary of the Olympic Pipe Line rupture on June 10, 1999. That rupture set off an explosion that tore through the landscape of Whatcom Creek and claimed the lives of two boys and a teenager.
But living around pipelines is just a reality of the society we live in today.
“We have a lot of pipelines around, carrying everything from natural gas to diesel to finished materials, like the Olympic pipeline carried on that day,” said Gargett, who remembers just leaving his office in Fairhaven when he felt the explosion and saw the large cloud of black smoke rising from Whatcom Creek in 1999. “Pipelines are probably the safest form of transportation of these types of items.”
According to a 2013 Manhattan Institute study, approximately 70% of the country’s crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline — far exceeding tanker and barge shipments (23%), trucking (4%) and rail (3%).
The same study found that oil pipelines were statistically the least likely form of transportation for those products to have issues with 0.58 incidents per billion ton-miles for oil pipelines and 0.89 incidents per billion ton-miles for natural gas pipelines. Rail transportation had 2.08 incidents per billion ton-miles, while road transportation had 19.95 per billion ton-miles.
According to the Utilities and Transportation Commission, there are eight companies that transport petroleum and natural gas via pipelines in Whatcom County:
▪ Petrogas West LLC (formerly AltaGas Facilities, Inc.).
▪ BP Pipelines North America (BP Cherry Point Refinery).
▪ Cascade Natural Gas Corporation (also in numerous other Washington counties).
▪ Northwest Pipeline LLC (also in numerous other Washington counties).
▪ Olympic Pipe Line Company (also in Clark, Cowlitz, King, Lewis, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish and Thurston counties).
▪ Puget Sound Energy (also in King, Kittitas, Lewis, Pierce, Snohomish and Thurston counties).
▪ Trans Mountain Pipeline (Puget Sound) LLC (also in Skagit Country).
But how do you know if one of these companies’ pipelines is near your home?
Well, if your home uses natural gas to power its furnace, hot water heater, stove or fireplace, you have a natural gas delivery pipeline connected to your house.
“Most people don’t think about that, but yeah, most houses have natural gas pipelines,” Gargett said. “It was one of those delivery pipelines for PG&E that caused the big explosion in California about a decade ago (San Bruno in 2010). Those are pipelines, too.
“Most people think about the bigger pipelines, like the Trans Mountain, that runs through Bellingham and all of Whatcom County.”
Maps for the location of those major pipelines through Whatcom County are posted online by the National Pipeline Mapping System.
That map shows gas transmission lines running north-south from east of Sumas to Wickersham, mostly following the Highway 9 corridor, with a loop north of Lynden, to the Ferndale refineries, underneath Bellingham and back through Nugents Corner.
Hazardous liquid pipelines, including the Olympic pipeline, also cross the U.S.-Canadian border near Sumas, head southwest and through the eastern portions of Bellingham, before following close to Interstate 5 into Skagit County. Lines also cut west just north of Bellingham to the Ferndale refineries.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s security policy limits how close you can zoom on the maps, so only the general locations of the major pipelines can be seen, not if a pipeline runs directly under or near a specific house.
“People want to know if their property is along a pipeline,” Gargett said. “If your property abuts a pipeline, that should be in the legal description when you purchase. You should know. But if you’re across the street, you may not know.”
If you believe you do live near a pipeline, Gargett said many of the companies are good resources to find out information about how close a pipeline is to your home — Trans Mountain will even come out to your home if your property abuts the pipeline to discuss what you need to know and do.
Gargett also said that land above pipelines is well marked with posts or markers about who the pipelines belong to and how to contact them.
If you do live near a pipeline, Gargett suggests, “The same rules as just about anything apply to pipeline safety — have an emergency kit, know how to get out of your home and have a plan for your family. Good emergency practices apply to just about everything.”
Gargett also said there is good pipeline safety information available online, though he said to make sure you know the source, as some websites are run by pipeline companies. Among his recommendations were:
▪ ingaa.org: Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
▪ aopl.org: Association of Oil Pipelines.
▪ firemarshals.org: National Association of State Fire Marshals.
▪ naspsr.org: National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives.
▪ utc.wa.gov: Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
“Pipeline safety is a big deal, and everyone is a part of it,” Gargett told The Herald. “If somebody is out working in the yard and smells natural gas, there could be a leak somewhere along the line. It’s buried, but if you get the fire department out there, they’ve got sniffing gear and they can help keep a small leak a small leak.”