Recalling 10 years of work since Bellingham pipeline explosion
The incident remains one of the defining cases in Department of Ecology history: on June 10, 1999, more than 277,000 gallons of gasoline poured out of a ruptured section of the Olympic Pipe Line Co.’s interstate liquid fuel pipeline. The gas entered Whatcom Creek creating an explosive environment that once ignited, took three lives and burned through the heart of the city of Bellingham.
Shortly after hearing the explosion and seeing smoke clouds, colleagues from our Bellingham Field Office were involved in the response. In a matter of hours, responders from Northwest Regional Office and Ecology headquarters began to arrive at the command post in Bellingham. In the days and weeks that followed, dozens of our Ecology colleagues – some from as far away as Yakima – spent time helping the community and environment recover.
When it was all over, we had worked hand-in-hand with our partners from the city of Bellingham, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Attorney General’s Office, Whatcom Land Trust, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission’s Office of Pipeline Safety and a host of other local, tribal, state and federal entities on this response.
Ecology plays key role
For four years, Bellingham Field Office Manager Richard Grout worked tirelessly in the community to ensure all the restoration and recovery efforts were completed and coordinated with the city and other local partners. He and others also spent time with the families who lost their loved ones.
The pipeline explosion was traumatic for everyone involved. In addition to the environmental devastation, it involved the tragic loss of two children and a young man.
The case was settled for millions in criminal penalties, civil penalties, damage restoration, required pipeline improvements and wrongful death damages. Olympic Pipe Line paid for environmental work including:
- Removing 6,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil and aerobically cleaning another 2,000 cubic yards.
- Planting more than 36,000 trees.
- Purchasing 13.5 acres of land along Whatcom Creek to add to the city’s Whatcom Falls Park.
- Restoring creeks to provide salmon with cooler water temperatures, off-channel sloughs and pools, and gravel bars for spawning.
- Reconstructing the confluence of Fever and Whatcom creeks.
- Installing a system to pump and cleanse groundwater until water quality standards are met.
What went wrong
Ecology Spill Preparedness Manager Linda Pilkey-Jarvis was among the team of Ecology investigators including Ron Holcomb and Gary Lee who spent long hours trying to determine why the incident occurred with such disastrous effect. They also and helped sort out who was responsible for damaging the pipeline and failing to discover and repair it before the rupture.
Ron and Linda represented Ecology in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation. The inquiry included weeks of interviews with Olympic Pipe Line personnel and other contractors who had worked near the rupture location. There were forensic tests of the damaged pipe, examination of thousands of written records – including Ecology’s enforcement history against the company, the spill prevention and contingency plans, manuals we reviewed and years of other correspondence.
After the investigation was complete, Ecology spent months working with the U.S. Department of Justice as the enforcement part of the case moved forward.
“Participating in an NTSB investigation is a unique experience. The level of detail in which everything was examined was astounding” Linda said. “At the same time, the experience was consistently heartbreaking because of the loss of lives and at times frustrating because of the slow pace of the federal investigation and prosecution. Our enforcement couldn’t proceed ahead of the federal government – finally, then-Director Fitzsimmons told the Justice Department we wouldn’t wait any longer.”
Restoring environment, taking account As we near the decade mark for this tragic incident, Ecology is working with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission’s Office of Pipeline Safety and Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDF&W) to remember the work we undertook in the wake of the tragedy including:
- Responding to the incident, including investigating the incident and levying the largest civil penalties ever by the state of Washington – $2.5 million to Olympic Pipe Line and $5 million to Shell.
- Helping restore the environmental damage caused by the explosion, improve habitat areas in the Whatcom Creek watershed and helping acquire key parcels near Cherry Point and Lily Point in rural Whatcom County.
- Cleaning up long-term fuel contamination in the spill area.
- Measures taken since to help keep similar tragedies from happening again.
Taking positive steps to help prevent similar incidents
On June 4, Ecology issued a press release recalling the tragic events on June 10, 1999, and outlining measures the state has taken to prevent similar incidents in the future including:
Stationing two full-time spill responders at Ecology’s field office in Bellingham to address pipeline, oil refining and transportation-related spills to reduce the risk of hazardous material spills in Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties.
Reviewing and approving pipeline company oil-spill contingency plans and conducting spill readiness drills to test and improve the effectiveness of their plans.
Positioning critical oil-spill response equipment at strategic points in local communities throughout Washington to enable rapid and thorough response to spills from oil pipelines.
Developing geographic-based oil spill response strategies for the inland areas of the state that target natural, cultural, and economic resources at risk from pipeline spills and identify strategies to minimize damages.
By working together and staying on top of small problems, we’re preventing bigger ones from happening.