The worst Olympic Pipeline gasoline-spill in 25 years is still being assessed for damage to south Skagit County waterways as a cleanup along a stretch of farmland and important salmon habitat continues.
The spill was nowhere near the size of the nearly 300,000 gallons of gasoline that burst through a damaged section of the pipeline in Bellingham on June 10, 1999. Two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year man died in the ensuing explosion.
The amount of the Dec. 10 spill near Conway in south Skagit County has been revised downward from initial reports of more than 30,000 gallons to 21,168, the state Department of Ecology reported last Thursday.
The Olympic Pipeline carries refined petroleum products from four Whatcom and Skagit refineries along a service route 400 miles to Portland.
The spill was caused by a malfunction in a 20-inch diameter pipe at a pressure valve site that sent the gas through a 3/8-inch tube for a yet-to-be-reported time span in the early hours. An elementary school in nearby Conway was closed down but reopened a few days later.
BP pipeline operators detected a drop in pipeline pressure, indicating a likely leak and began the process of shutting the system down, Ecology said, adding, “Residual pressure caused the release of gasoline to continue for several hours.”
Officials at BP, owner and operator of the pipeline, promptly dispatched crews to work with Ecology at the spill site, just east of the junction of I-5 and Highway 534. BP has worked hard to rehabilitate its image since the days when it had the worst worker safety and environmental record in the oil industry.
Failure and tragedy
Though the spill was nowhere near in size to the Bellingham disaster, the fact that it occurred at all bothered staff at the Pipeline Safety Trust, an organization created in the aftermath of the Bellingham tragedy.
“We absolutely have concerns,” said Kenneth Clarkson, communications director. “BP has a responsibility to keep people and the environment safe from the risks of its pipeline and it has failed to uphold that responsibility. I would say, given the tragic history of this pipeline, BP’s responsibility should be even weightier.”
Retired former Bellingham auto dealer Frank King knows all too well about the Olympic pipeline’s tragic history. His 10-year-old son, Wade, was one of the youths who died in the 1999 explosion. King attended every court hearing in the following years, read every document he could get his hands on, even once traveled to Calgary, Canada, to address a gathering of oil industry executives about pipeline safety.
King does not abide any failure to operate a pipeline safely, no matter the size of the leak. He was disturbed to learn of the Skagit County pipeline incident.
“You’d think they would have learned something by now,” he said.
King noted that three Olympic pipeline managers were sent to prison, one for up to three years for criminal negligence leading to the fatal explosion.
“I didn’t really want to see anybody go to jail,” he said. “I wanted them to fix the problems.”
Assessing the costs
It is too early to tell what the Dec. 10 spill will cost BP when a final assessment is made.
Approximately eight farms front on a stretch of water with the inelegant name, Hill Ditch, that connects to Bulson Creek. Both bodies of water support salmon habitat. Bulson Creek was restored as habitat in 2012.
John Anderson, whose farm suffered some soil contamination along Hill Ditch, grows hay and has a few animals. He seemed fairly calm about the situation.
“The pipeline people have been pretty responsive and have been working on cleanup for days,” said Anderson, who is a board member of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, which includes much of the county’s farm community as members.
BP has set up a system to handle damage claims. Anderson said he is in no hurry to file.
“I’ll need more time to see what it will amount to,” he said.
BP’s history of taking on highly risky ventures throughout its early and expanding years produced substantial profits, and a woeful safety record.
Memories of the explosion at BP’s Texas refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 180 more were still alive when the next awful disaster hit. The company’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform off the Louisiana coast exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. It also produced the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and despoiling of hundreds of miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline from Florida to Louisiana ultimate cost $60 billion dollars in fines and lawsuit settlements. It nearly destroyed BP.
BP was not involved in the Olympic Pipeline in 1999 when it exploded in an area inland from downtown Bellingham, killing three and costing then-operator Equilon hundreds of millions of dollars. It was then owned by a partnership between Texaco and Shell.
BP bought into the Olympic Pipeline in 2006 and from records has maintained a fairly clean record operating the pipeline. Until the pipeline spill on Dec. 10, the only other incident of note was caused by small leaks in improperly installed pressure valves on a new section of Olympic’s pipeline running east of Lake Washington. The leak was quickly discovered, but BP was fined $100,000 by the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Safety Commission’s Pipeline Safety Program.
Working at recovery
Crews from BP and Ecology were working at the spill site until last Friday, when a halt was called due to oncoming inclement weather. As of last Thursday, workers had recovered about 8,324 gallons of gasoline from the site.
Also, as of last Thursday, Ecology reported that 1,664 cubic yards of contaminated soil has been hauled off, treated, and dumped at a hazardous waste facility.
Wildlife fatalities counted so far, said state authorities, were one American beaver, one pine siskin bird, one mallard duck and one American widgeon duck.
Those agencies involved in either cleanup or monitoring are the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Ecology, Skagit County, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Lummi Nation and BP. They operate under a unified command.
In response to the spill, Highway 534 was closed the same day between I-5 and Bulson Road, a distance of about a mile. The spill site was a short distance east of the freeway at Hill Ditch.
The highway was opened to one-lane traffic while truckloads of equipment took up the other lane. Both lanes were open to traffic as of Jan. 8.
A BP media communications officer told Salish Current that the company was preparing a response to questions submitted.
A heavy toll
Meanwhile, the deadly legacy of Deepwater Horizon continues to take more victims.
In a National Geographic article published April 17, 2020, 10 years after the offshore oil rig exploded, the toxic effects of the 130 million gallons of crude oil persisted.
The magazine described a sea floor still covered in black goop that has killed off many coral reefs, diminished the numbers of many fish species, and caused a decline in marine mammal reproduction.
A PBS broadcast on Feb. 23 of last year documented the toll the crude oil spill has reportedly taken on the people who helped clean the beaches and rescued oil-smeared birds:
“More than a decade after the disaster, cleanup workers are still reporting cases of respiratory illnesses, skin disorders, dizziness, and other medical issues they say were caused by the spill. Their health struggles are documented in more than 5,000 lawsuits filed against BP in federal courts in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, with some workers reporting illnesses diagnosed as recently as 2020.”
Memories of the huge explosion and the deaths of three young people in Bellingham in 1999 do not easily erase. Most stories about the Conway area leak in area media mention it. Frank King, father of a child no longer with him and his wife, Mary, says he will never forget it.
The lawsuit that he and the family filed against Equilon, Texaco and Shell was settled for $75 million. The total amount of fines and settlements of lawsuits cost the pipeline operators $187 million.
“My goal was to make it financially unfeasible to allow a leak in a pipeline,” King said, repeating, “no leak is acceptable.”
— Reported by Dick Clever