Timeline of the 1999 pipeline explosion on Whatcom Creek
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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.
Incidents involving fuel and gas lines have continued to kill and maim unsuspecting people in the 20 years since 237,000 gallons of gasoline seeped from a large underground pipeline in Whatcom Falls Park, sparking a deadly fireball that rocked Bellingham.
Such spills and explosions often make headlines — from a 2010 oil leak that fouled the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and caused massive ecological damage, to a 2016 natural-gas explosion in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood that destroyed several businesses and injured nine firefighters.
But Washington state, thanks to tougher scrutiny and a focus on safety and prevention, sees far fewer incidents that kill or injure people and damage property and the environment.
Officials said that’s a testament to pressure kept on government and the industry for reforms and oversight in the wake of the June 10, 1999, disaster that claimed the lives of Bellingham residents Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, and Liam Wood, 18.
Wood, who was fly-fishing in Whatcom Creek, was overcome by gasoline fumes and drowned. King and Tsiorvas were playing with a butane lighter and accidentally sparked the inferno that fatally burned them.
“We think of Liam, Wade and Stephen every day,” said Sean Mayo, director of pipeline safety for the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates 31 pipeline operators and inspects more than 41,000 miles of natural gas and hazardous-liquid pipelines, along with private natural-gas utilities.
“The potential consequences of a pipeline failure is high,” Mayo said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.
Eight of those pipelines are in Whatcom County.
“The tragedy of the Bellingham incident is a part of Marathon Pipe Line’s culture and it reminds us that we must continually improve the safety of our pipeline operations,” said Shawn Lyon, president of Ohio-based Marathon Pipe Line, who often speaks to media about the industry.
“It was a transformational event for the entire pipeline industry,” Lyon said in an interview with The Herald and in an emailed statement.
‘Significant’ incidents still frequent
From 1999 through 2018, there were 5,708 “significant” pipeline incidents across the U.S., as defined by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the main federal regulatory agency.
Those figures include all pipeline types — from the big transmission lines like the one from Whatcom County refineries that travels through Whatcom Falls Park on its way to Seattle and Portland — to the smaller web of distribution pipes that serve homes and businesses for heat, hot showers and cooking.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s website says a significant incident is one that causes an unintentional fire or explosion, kills people or sends them to the hospital, causes more than $50,000 damage (in 1984 dollars), involves more than five barrels (210 gallons) of “highly volatile” liquid or 50 barrels (2,100 gallons) of another type of liquid.
Gas distribution incidents caused by an unrelated fire or explosion are excluded from the damage and casualty figures.
But still, a total of 291 people have died and 1,267 people have been injured and property damage amounts to more than $9.2 billion since 1999.
That’s an average of 285 incidents and 15 deaths every year.
And that’s despite the increased oversight that happened amid the broad public outrage following the Bellingham disaster.
“Remembering what happened in 1999 has been an important part of maintaining safe operations since we took over as pipeline operator in 2000,” said Michael Abendhoff, director of media affairs for BP America Inc., which also operates the BP Cherry Point refinery south of Blaine.
“BP’s goal continues to be to operate a safe, reliable pipeline. Our commitment to no accidents, no harm to people, and no damage to the environment is something we take very seriously,” he said in an email.
Disaster prompted oversight
A National Transportation Safety Board report blamed a tragic and preventable cascade of human mistakes, ignorance and mechanical failures for the 1999 explosion in Bellingham’s beloved park, where fire burned for five days, with a total disaster cost of more than $187 million.
Three Olympic Pipe Line Co. employees were convicted of crimes, and the pipeline was idled for almost two years, according to reporting from The Bellingham Herald.
Olympic paid more than $112 million in civil and criminal penalties and was forced to invest in new inspection and damage prevention methods.
Families of King and Tsiorvas settled for $75 million, and a settlement with Woods’ family was not made public.
An undisclosed amount was paid for private property damage and personal injury.
In addition, an independent industry watchdog called the Pipeline Safety Trust was formed in Bellingham, headed by Carl Weimer, who had been executive director of the local environmental organization RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.
“When the Bellingham explosion happened, there was no requirement to inspect,” Weimer said in an interview with The Herald. “For every type of pipeline, there’s now inspections.”
Weimer said that the pipeline in Whatcom Falls Park had been damaged — and not reported — in 1994 by a contractor building the city’s new water treatment plant. But Olympic took most of the blame in the National Transportation Safety Board report because of poor inspection procedures.
“There’s been a huge emphasis on that kind of damage and how to prevent it,” Weimer said. “It’s paid dividends.”
He said the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush was deeply troubled by the pipeline company’s negligence.
“They were so aghast at the way the pipeline had been maintained that they went to bat with the parents to get oversight,” Weimer said. “Bellingham is still recognized for that, I think.”
Lyon said the pipeline industry recognizes that “the tragic heartbreak” of the Whatcom Falls event was preventable.
“We had always worked hard to avoid releases and to protect human life and the environment, but Bellingham prompted us to work much more collaboratively than ever before toward never having an incident like this again,” he said.
New legislation passed
One of the measures enacted after the Whatcom Falls disaster was the state Pipeline Safety Act, which allowed the Utilities and Transportation Commission to inspect pipelines in Washington state and also the interstate lines — such as Olympic — that travel through Washington.
“The state Pipeline Safety Act really laid the groundwork for our program as it exists today,” Mayo said.
Mayo said the act created the Citizens Committee on Pipeline Safety, provided more staff, and forced the industry to develop incident response plans.
“It really put the onus on the pipeline companies to increase their performance and make things safer,” Mayo said.
In addition, the Utilities and Transportation Commission began aggressively promoting a program aimed at reducing pipeline damage by urging everyone from contractors to homeowners to call 811 before digging anywhere.
“So many people don’t know what’s under the ground and could haphazardly dig,” said Utilities and Transportation Commission spokeswoman Kate Griffith.
At the federal level were two major pieces of legislation — the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011 to toughen oversight and safety, and the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recently criticized the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for moving too slowly to implement several provisions of those laws.
And in a September 2011 report, The New York Times found that PHMSA rarely levied fines and had too few inspectors to adequately police the pipeline industry.
“Pipeline safety requirements and industry safety programs have come so far since 1999,” said Andy Black, president and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, an industry organization.
“We now have extensive requirements in federal law and regulation woven throughout operator safety programs for proactive pipeline inspections and preventive maintenance,” Black said in an email. “Pipeline inspection technology has advanced leaps and bounds with inspection tools that scan pipelines like an MRI or ultrasound at the doctor’s office.”
Washington residents much safer
In Washington state, however, increased oversight has led to fewer incidents, Weimer said.
“There is conflicting (information) if you look up the data, but here, we’re generally safer,” he said. “The state has stepped up. We have a lot more inspectors on the ground.”
In Washington state, there have been nine serious incidents with one fatality since 2000, according to Utilities and Transportation Commission data provided by Griffith.
All pipeline incidents during that time — not just serious or significant ones — cost a total $62 million in property damage.
Most of that amount, $46.5 million, was from a single disaster — the 2014 explosion at a liquid natural gas storage facility near the Columbia River town of Plymouth that injured five people and forced hundreds to flee their homes.
More disaster awareness, planning
Bill Boyd, former chief of the Bellingham Fire Department and the department’s spokesman in 1999, said the Whatcom Falls disaster prompted the city to develop response plans for major emergencies.
“When you have a disaster like this, it doesn’t just affect the police and fire departments,” Boyd said in an interview with The Herald. “It tasks and overwhelms all city departments.”
Boyd said one of the most important changes was the Utilities and Transportation Commission’s focus on pipeline awareness.
“I do think the ‘Call Before You Dig’ ad campaign has had an impact,” he said.
Mayo said the 811 program also created pipeline awareness among city and county planning officials statewide, and they began to steer developments away from major pipelines — or at least create a buffer.
Weimer said new legislation also required pipeline companies to share information such as emergency-response plans with fire departments and emergency managers, including the location of pipelines, what materials might be flowing in them, and how best to contain spills and fight a fire.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis on trying to make pipeline companies coordinate with emergency responders,” he said. “There’s now an emphasis on zoning and planning with new development near pipelines.”
Partly thwarting the public’s ability to learn about where pipelines are located is the federal government’s reluctance to say exactly where they are and release other information deemed sensitive to national security, Weimer said.
They’re shown in published maps and identified with signs such as those along Lakeway Drive near the entrance to Whatcom Falls Park. But the online maps are deliberately vague, he said.
“They think it’s just a blueprint for some terrorist. You’d have to be a really dumb terrorist not to figure it out,” Weimer said. “There’s signs everywhere.”
Industry under scrutiny
Pipeline officials recognize that their industry is under constant scrutiny.
“While pipelines are the safest way to transport the fuels we need and use, the tragedy at Bellingham remains a constant reminder for the pipeline industry that we can always work to improve pipeline safety,” Black said.
Weimer said that since the Whatcom Falls disaster, the number of pipeline incidents has been trending upward nationwide, but with less product spilled and fewer deaths and injuries. Regulatory supervision is greater in Washington than in many other states, he said.
“In Washington state, they take their job very seriously,” Weimer said. “This community is more apt to pay attention because we’ve been through it.”
Tomorrow: Fines from 1999 pipeline tragedy helped pay for these environmental projects and parks