Special Reports

Olympic pipeline disaster spurred changes

On June 10, 1999, Bellingham residents were literally shaken by the fiery explosion of the Olympic pipeline when it ruptured and spilled 276,000 gallons of gasoline into Whatcom and Hannah creeks.

The disaster at Whatcom Falls Park prompted Congress to improve pipeline safety and resulted in rare convictions and major legal settlements.

The pipeline moves fuel south from four refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties. When the gasoline ignited, the instant fire charred nearly a mile and a half of Whatcom Creek. Three people died: Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, 10-year-old friends playing in the park, and 18-year-old Liam Wood, was fly-fishing in Whatcom Creek.

Investigators decided a series of events led to the disaster, including Olympic's failure to correct a problem at a transfer station that had caused repeated pressure surges along the line. On June 10, high pressure ruptured a section of the line that had been damaged during earlier construction work in the park.

Olympic and fuel companies that once owned part of the pipeline paid $75 million to the families of King and Tsiorvas to settle their lawsuit. Wood's family reached a private settlement.

In addition, two former Olympic employees pleaded guilty to felony pipeline safety charges: one got six months behind bars; the other got 30 days. A third employee pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Olympic and its then-owners also agreed to pay $36 million in civil and criminal penalties as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.