Pipeline explosion: Part 1 — The day Bellingham ‘lost its innocence’ - Salish Current
May 7, 2024
Pipeline explosion: Part 1 — The day Bellingham ‘lost its innocence’
Meghan Fenwick

The black cloud roiling up over Whatcom Creek when a gas pipeline exploded, taking three lives, on June 10, 1999, was visible for miles all evening; the smells of gas and burned forest lingered for days. (Worldoflucky via CC BY-SA 4.0)

May 7, 2024
Pipeline explosion: Part 1 — The day Bellingham ‘lost its innocence’
Meghan Fenwick

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This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Whatcom Watch and is reprinted here in full under a republication agreement between Whatcom Watch and Salish Current.

Late on a sunny June afternoon, Bellingham was shocked as a 30,000-foot-tall wall of smoke erupted from Whatcom Falls Park. 

Longtime Bellingham residents remember it well: At 5:02 p.m. on June 10, 1999, the summer evening sky darkened. Across the city, residents stepped outside to witness the 30,000-foot-tall wall of smoke erupting from Whatcom Falls Park. 

On that day, the city was forever changed.

“I always ask people where they were during that time, because I think it’s sort of like when JFK was shot,” said Renee LaCroix. “Everybody just remembers exactly what they were doing.” LaCroix is the assistant director of the Natural Resources Division of Bellingham’s Public Works Department.

Lost innocence, lost lives

That summer, nearly 25 years ago, LaCroix was a graduate student at Western Washington University. She was jogging with a friend along Bellingham Bay. When they saw the smoke, they stopped. LaCroix lived near the creek, and, as they walked home, the extent of the explosion became apparent. She caught a glimpse of the creek and was horrified to see milky-white and black water with dead fish floating on the surface. 

“I’ve heard others say this, but Bellingham had lost its innocence that day,” said LaCroix. 

An explosion that rattled windows miles away created an enormous black cloud, seen here from the corner of James and Virginia streets. (Angela Lee Holstrom / Pipeline Safety Trust)

The creek went up in flames near Bellingham’s water treatment plant in Whatcom Falls Park. The fire and fumes took the lives of 18-year-old Liam Wood and two 10-year-olds, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas. All three were enjoying the public park.

No aquatic life in the burn zone survived that day. The City of Bellingham estimates that more than 100,000 fish died as a result of the fire, including salmon, trout, lamprey and crayfish. Twenty-six acres of vegetation were lost, including 16 acres of mature trees. Mammals, birds, amphibians and insects died, their habitat destroyed.

Fueled by 237,000 gallons of gasoline that leaked from a ruptured pipeline owned by the Olympic Pipe Line Company, flames traveled a mile and a half downstream and stopped just before the interstate. 

A series of deficiencies in Olympic’s pipeline maintenance led to the tragedy. It began with a construction company contracted to work on the city’s water treatment plant. The company dented the pipeline in 1994 and did not report it to Olympic, though Olympic eventually discovered the damage through internal inspections and never addressed it.

Little physical evidence of the devastation remains on the public trail system that winds through the park, save for a few dead trees that passersby might miss if they don’t look up. The creek’s rehabilitation is a result of a collaborative effort by federal, state and municipal agencies as well as volunteers and nonprofit organizations.

“Bellingham is the reason we exist,” said Kenneth Clarkson, communications and outreach director for the Pipeline Safety Trust. “It’s the reason every day we fight for safer pipelines and for better legislation to protect people and the environment. It’s important to re-engage with the community as community changes, and this is a tragedy that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving pipeline safety, is committed to keeping Bellingham’s story at the forefront. PST will be hosting a series of events throughout June to commemorate the tragedy.

Creek walks have been a staple of the organization since 1999. They are how representatives, regulators and industry leaders come to learn the lessons that the Bellingham community was forced to reconcile with that summer. 

Demanding answers — and change

In 1999, few Bellingham residents were aware that a pipeline cut through their town. When the creek erupted, rumors of a plane crash spread. Carl Weimer, founding member and special programs manager of Pipeline Safety Trust, was working at The RE Store at the time when someone ran in and exclaimed “downtown just blew up!”

“Google was a new thing at that point, and if you searched for pipeline safety you might get two or three things,” Weimer said. “Now you get inundated.”

In the following days, months and years, the Bellingham community demanded answers. The Olympic Pipe Line Company communicated a desire to resume operations just days after the tragedy, citing fuel shortages at SeaTac, but was rebuffed.

The pipeline was damaged underground, across the creek from the water pumping station. After the fire, a covering was installed on the portion of the pipeline that crosses the creek and a fence was erected to prevent thrill seekers from crossing the creek on the pipeline. (Kathy Sheehan © 2010)

The company, headquartered in Renton, owned and operated the 400-mile pipeline that stretches from Blaine to Portland, Oregon. BP [formerly British Petroleum] first bought two-thirds interest in the pipeline in 2001, and bought the last third stake in 2005. 

Weimer met with local neighborhood associations, environmental groups, lawyers and doctors that summer for breakfast at Old Town Cafe to parse through the information they had. It was here that the Pipeline Safety Trust emerged, originally called SAFE Bellingham. 

Advocates in the wake of grief

The grassroots organization sought justice for the families of the victims, stricter regulations and the monitoring of all surrounding pipelines. It sought to reduce incidents like Bellingham’s. PST began letter-writing campaigns and petition drives. Group members even testified before Congress in the fall of 1999. 

“We came together and continued to push,” Weimer said. “The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board went on and on, ‘I don’t know what’s different in Bellingham, what they’re drinking in that water up there, but they seem to have this activist mindset that won’t let go’.”

Weimer credits much of their success as the only nonprofit watchdog on the national pipeline industry to the parents of the young boys who lost their lives that day. Liam Wood’s mother, Marlene Robinson, and stepfather, Bruce Babec; Wade King’s mother and father, Mary and Frank King; and Stephen Tsiorvas’ mother, Katherine Dalen, and stepfather, Skip Williams. Each advocated for change in the wake of their grief. 

New pipeline safety regulations and laws were adopted at the state and federal level in the following years. The Olympic Pipe Line Company amassed more than $187 million in fines, penalties and settlements. For the first time, pipeline employees were convicted and jailed for their negligence. The pipeline would not resume operations at Whatcom Falls Park for almost two years, the longest shutdown after an incident in U.S. history.

Before the tragedy, operators were never required to inspect their pipelines. Now, not only are regular checks required, but the findings must be reported. Communication between the operators, the public and government agencies improved tenfold, according to Weimer. What was once an invisible danger lurking beneath trail-goers at Whatcom Falls Park is now marked by mandated bright-red signposts listing the product, operator and an emergency number.

Tomorrow, read “Part 2 — Healing, and aftermath”

By Meghan Fenwick

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