Pipeline explosion: Part 2 — Healing and aftermath - Salish Current
May 8, 2024
Pipeline explosion: Part 2 — Healing and aftermath
Meghan Fenwick

A story pole created by Lummi House of Tears to memorialize the explosion and to help the community heal sits at the Woburn Street Trailhead in Whatcom Falls Park. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

May 8, 2024
Pipeline explosion: Part 2 — Healing and aftermath
Meghan Fenwick


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.

Whatcom Creek restoration and working for future safety became community efforts following the 1999 devastation.

Whatcom Creek runs through the heart of Bellingham, beginning at Lake Whatcom and ending at Bellingham Bay. It weaves through an old-growth forest (reduced after the 1999 pipeline fire), creates habitat for a variety of wildlife species, and inspires the infrastructure of the city as it stands today. 

From time immemorial, Coast Salish tribes including the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe stewarded Whatcom Creek, Bellingham Bay and the rest of the watershed, establishing seasonal fishing and shellfish harvesting encampments along its banks. In the 1850s, European colonizers, in a joint effort with Lummi Nation, created the first sawmill at present-day Whatcom Falls. The word Whatcom, which later became the name of the county, is adapted from the Coast Salish language, meaning noisy or rumbling water. 

Renee LaCroix was first hired as the project lead for the City of Bellingham’s restoration effort soon after the explosion. Two large-scale projects were completed in 2006: the Salmon Park Project and the Cemetery Creek Project. Signs along Whatcom Falls Park serve as a reminder that the work is ongoing, asking hikers to stay on the designated trails. 

“Once an event like this has happened, it sets the creek off on a different trajectory,” LaCroix said. “It’s always going to be a creek that has been restored. It’s still going to be an amazing, healthy creek, and, 100 or 200 years in the future, we’ll have a huge mass of trees in there. It’s just on a different trajectory now, and it’ll go through its own evolution.”

Community-fueled restoration 

Before a full-scale restoration could start, an immediate emergency response was needed to ensure the safety of the community, remove contaminants and protect the water treatment plant. Initial efforts included collecting data on wildlife mortality rates and excavating contaminated soil. The fire burned so fast and so hot that the water in Hannah and Whatcom creeks vaporized, so the gas quickly settled in the streambed. 

Still towering above the rest, burnt remnants of old-growth evergreens serve as reminders of the fire that swept down the creek. A lush forest has returned, boosted by extensive restoration. (Kathy Sheehan © 2024)

Today, Whatcom Creek hosts vital spawning grounds for coho, chinook, chum, pink and sockeye salmon. While drafting a restoration plan, LaCroix — now the City of Bellingham’s Natural Resources Assistant Director —  and her team were able to take a holistic look at the entire riparian system and enhance salmon habitat. Some strategies included reconnecting lost channels, creating floodplains and other features for salmon to take a break from high stream velocities, as well as providing cover through tree planting.

The habitat restoration process provided another avenue for community members to channel their frustration and grief in the aftermath of the tragedy. In October 1999, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA)  hosted the first volunteer work party since the explosion downstream from the burn zone. Since 2017, NSEA has planted almost 3,000 trees and removed 21,000 pounds of invasive vegetation. 

Rachel Vasak, executive director of NSEA, began volunteering for NSEA while studying at Western Washington University in 1996. By 1999, she had a full-time position with the organization, and had participated in and helped organize many work parties. NSEA usually saw a turnout of around 15–20 volunteers. The first volunteer event after the fire, more than 100 people came, providing donuts and coffee and looking for any way to lend a helping hand.

“It was an honor to get to be there and help give those volunteers something meaningful to do, because digging out blackberries and picking up garbage and planting trees along a portion of Whatcom Creek felt healing to people at the time,” Vasak said.

The Saturday work-party tradition lives on as a collaboration between the City of Bellingham, NSEA, Whatcom Land Trust (a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open spaces) and others. Every weekend in the spring and fall, volunteers grab gloves and shovels and work to improve Bellingham’s natural habitats. 

“I think that gives people hope, where they’re taking initiative and putting energy into establishing a future that they want for their community,” LaCroix said. 

Remnants and reminders

While the black scar that once blanketed the roaring falls of Whatcom Creek has mostly healed, some remnants remain.

Liam Wood, the 18-year-old victim, was fly-fishing — his favorite hobby — the day of the fire when he was overcome by fumes, and drowned. At Weimer’s desk in the PST office sits a bright blue fishing fly encased in a clear paperweight. The same paperweight is displayed at the headquarters’ desks of Marathon Petroleum Corporation in Ohio. Officials there were struck by Liam’s story and tracked down the specific fly to create a reminder of the preventable and unimaginable tragedy.

“For me, there’s a few reasons to keep sharing this history, out of respect for the different layers of the tragedy and for the families that lost their precious children,” Vasak said. “The policy work that [PST] does — they are the leaders of taking the lessons learned and trying to apply those so others don’t experience the same loss.” 

Events are hosted in partnership with Pipeline Safety Trust, City of Bellingham, NSEA, RE Sources and Whatcom Land Trust, including upcoming commemorative events around the anniversary of the 1999 explosion

Aftermath: more recent incidents

The pipeline explosion in Whatcom Creek was not the first or last pipeline incident that took lives. Since 2004, 5,774 significant pipeline incidents have occurred in the United States, resulting in 260 fatalities, 1,047 injuries and $13 billion in damages. 

There are more than three million miles of pipelines throughout the country, according to the National Pipeline Mapping System. The database was created by the U.S Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety and is maintained by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). In 2004, PHMSA improved the mapping system, originally created in the 1990s, by requiring pipeline operators to provide more comprehensive data. 

On Dec. 10, 2023, the Olympic pipeline, now owned by BP, saw another spill in Conway, about 32 miles from the Whatcom Creek explosion. About 25,000 gallons of gasoline escaped. No injuries or fatalities resulted. [For more: “Update: Skagit gasoline pipeline spill cleanup still underway,” Salish Current, Jan. 17, 2024]

“It’s just awful to see another failure off that line, especially so close to here,” said Kenneth Clarkson, communications and outreach director for the Pipeline Safety Trust. “So much has been done since ’99, but there are still failures throughout the country on all different kinds of pipelines. This one being the pipeline that is the only reason the trust exists, it was really hard for us.”

Pipeline Safety Trust feels that PHMSA is critically underfunded and understaffed. In addition to regulating pipelines, it is responsible for overseeing the transportation of all hazardous materials, including by plane, boat, or, in the case of the East Palestine, Ohio disaster, train. [For more: “Pipeline growth booms; US agency in charge of safety struggles to keep up,” Salish Current, Dec. 15, 2023]

“Your Feet Can Kill What Your Eyes Cannot See” cautions a sign in Whatcom Falls Park, installed to protect new growth in restored areas. (Kathy Sheehan © 2024)

As the United States continues to see an average of 289 pipeline incidents a year, and, as the energy infrastructure grows and changes, PST reminds lawmakers and industry leaders to keep safety in mind. 

Emerging safety concerns

Two emerging pipeline safety concerns are related to the decarbonization movement. Whatcom County’s goal is net zero emissions by 2050, and, in 2021, the county council banned the development of new fossil-fuel facilities. The interest in clean hydrogen and carbon dioxide sequestration pose unique pipeline safety questions.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act appropriated more than $20 billion to clean hydrogen and carbon sequestration projects combined. Carbon dioxide is odorless, colorless, and can take longer to ignite, which threatens the ability to detect a leak in a timely manner. Hydrogen burns hotter and is more prone to explode than methane, and a hydrogen flame is invisible in daylight.

“Washington is projected to be one of the hydrogen hubs that the government is offering a bunch of money for,” Clarkson said. “We don’t know of any specific pipeline plans yet, but if things move forward and there are hydrogen-producing facilities in Whatcom County, there will be hydrogen pipelines. We want to see safer, stricter regulations for these pipelines.” [For more: “Green hydrogen plans take shape for former Alcoa site at Cherry Point,” Salish Current, Jan. 24, 2024]

PST has offered recommendations to PHMSA as new pipelines carrying new materials are developed or proposed. They ask for more rules and definitions specific to carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the laws that govern their transport, more research to better understand how these materials will interact with the technology, and more requirements for operators to monitor and share data. 

In 2004, the Pipeline Safety Trust received $4 million from Olympic Pipe Line Company’s fines and penalties to continue to relay this kind of information to all parties. Other funds were given to Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom Land Trust. Settlement funds continue to pay for habitat restoration and acquisition. 

Funding greenspaces

About $12 million from state and federal penalties were invested back into Whatcom County’s greenspaces. One $4 million fund was created to generate interest for habitat enhancement in Bellingham. The principal cannot be touched until 2049, 50 years after the incident. In the meantime, the Cemetery Creek, Salmon Park and Red Tail Reach projects were paid for by the accrued interest. Planning documents, grant applications, monitoring and maintenance of these projects were also funded by this interest.

The Red Tail Reach site is located upstream of the intersection between Whatcom Creek and I-5. The project was named after a red-tailed hawk that lived in the creek before, during and after the tragedy. LaCroix remembers seeing its nest outside the burn zone and watching it fly over her head during each phase of restoration. 

“We continue to see red-tailed hawks, we see great blue herons,” LaCroix said. “It’s a really impressive diversity of species. I think it speaks to not only what we were able to do for Whatcom Creek, but also the health of the rest of the city’s ecosystem. Whatcom Creek alone wouldn’t be able to support a lot of those species without the connectivity to other areas of the city.”

One of the city’s most recent projects that used the interest funds was the Little Squalicum Estuary, completed in 2023. The city excavated 2.4 acres of land to create the waterway, removed a fish barrier that divided Squalicum Creek and Bellingham Bay, and relocated 1,100 fish. The project earned an Engineering Excellence Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies. [For more: “Little estuary to see big restoration investment,” Salish Current, April 25, 2021]

Also read “Part 1 — The day Bellingham ‘lost its innocence’ ”

— By Meghan Fenwick

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