More Than a Decade of Healing

These are the thoughts and reflections from people who live inWhatcom Countyin 2004 on the 5th anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy.

All of us here in Bellingham will never forget the tragedy that happened on June 10th 1999. The loss of three wonderful young men will live in this community forever. To see the family members fight for pipeline safety along with Carl Weimer and SAFE Bellingham really showed what Bellingham is all about. Not only will SAFE Bellingham help pipeline safety here in our sate it will help all around the country. To see the community come together and say "Not in our town and not in any town" brings tears to your eyes and proud to be a Bellingham citizen.

Gene Knutson, Bellingham City Council


I was driving on I-5 when I heard the news of the Bellingham pipeline explosion on the radio. When I came to Congress a year and a half later, I brought with me the memory of the two boys and the young man we lost that day and a strong desire to make our communities safer.

I made pipeline safety one of my top priorities in Congress. Working together with families, advocates in the community, and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, we were able to enact a stronger pipeline safety law as a result of the Bellingham explosion. This law improved pipeline safety in our country. Work remains.

As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I continue to push the federal Office of Pipeline Safety to hold pipeline companies accountable to the fullest extent that we may never have to live through another day of tragedy like June 10, 1999.

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, Washington's 2nd Congressional District


Too bad it took tragedy to alert us to pipelines

I was in Bellingham and saw an unbelievable explosion. My heart goes out to the people involved in the explosion. I would have expected the city of Bellingham to monitor the pipeline company more responsibly and to alert us quicker as to what was taking place.

It's unfortunate that something so tragic had to take place for us to learn that we even had a gasoline pipeline running through our city and parks.

Emily Eagle, Bellingham


We were lucky we made trip to get ice cream

Walker, my 6 year old, his friend Sarah and I were playing at the Whatcom Falls Park playground, when the kids decided to investigate the hatchery below. We took a quick tour from tank to tank and went off for ice cream at the Malt Shop. Minutes after we finished the cones and wiped chins, we looked up to see the billowing dark gray cloud just starting to spread toward the south. Struck by how ominous it looked, only later was I to realize how lucky we had been.

Chuck Eberdt, Bellingham


Thanks God every day for blessing mom, son

Just as I left my driveway with my 3-month old son in the stroller, the boom blasted. We stood at the top of Alabama with many others looking at the black cloud. Everything was silent for what seemed a long time, then we heard sirens.

Had I not relaxed for a minute before my run, my son and I would have been in the park where Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas were playing. My son is 5 now. Whenever I run in Whatcom Falls Park, my heart is heavy. I think of the three moms and their boys, and I thank God everyday for blessing me with my son.

Tonian Gray, Bellingham


Mushroom cloud cast ominous shadow over city

The power to the Mount Baker Station Post Office went off and on twice followed by an explosion. I walked out the south entrance and saw the cloud of black smoke rise rapidly upward from the south.

As I drove home, north on Interstate 5, I noticed the event took on the shape of a huge mushroom cloud, like a nuclear explosion, and then stopped its rise and expanded horizontally, casting an ominous shadow over Bellingham.

Monty Vonn, Bellingham


Missed being caught in conflagration by 20 minutes

My afternoon dog walk involved crossing the place where the fire jumped the access road that runs between Whatcom Falls Park and Bayview Cemetery. Upon returning home, I noticed a black cloud to the west, which appeared to be a serious storm coming. The local newscaster eventually revealed that it was smoke from the pipeline leak and blast. Chipper and I had missed being caught in the middle of the conflagration by about 20 minutes.

Fred Lund , Bellingham


Odd connection with Mount St. Helens' blast

Headed to my own retirement party, I smelled something as I was driving across Woburn Street and decided to have my oil changed soon. Sitting on the patio of the Marina Restaurant with my colleagues, the shocking plume of smoke that billowed reminded me of Mount St. Helens' eruption.

On that day in 1980, I had been in Bellevue taking a class on ethics and the environment: the safe transportation of fossil fuels. An odd connection, but significant, I think.

Carolyn J. Schieck, Bellingham


Grandchildren, cell phone kept me from 'ground zero'

My grandchildren, Gina and Melissa, saved my life the day of the pipeline explosion. If they hadn't needed me, their babysitter, that afternoon, I would have taken my usual route home on Woburn Street instead of turning west to their house.

In fact, I also have to thank my cell phone company for getting the children's call through to me just minutes before the explosion because I was within two blocks of the "ground zero" site. Thanks kids!

Martena Markel, Bellingham


What would 3 boys be doing today?

Standing at Bergsma Gallery's counter as Jody Bergsma signed framed prints I had purchased, a violent explosion rocked the gallery. Everyone was guessing the source. Then, gasping, a clerk pointed in the direction of Whatcom Falls Park. Disbelief. Confusion. I carried the prints to my car as radio reporters, describing a fireball on Iowa Street, warned citizens to evacuate. The tragic loss of life yet undiscovered. My memory: utterly insignificant. What would the three boys be doing today?

Stacey L. Moore, Whatcom County


5 years after pipeline tragedy there still is work to be done

Our View - The Bellingham Herald

Five years after we watched a black mushroom cloud spread over Bellingham, we remember the panic and the ensuing deep sadness over the news that three young lives had been lost when the Olympic Pipe Line exploded in Whatcom Falls Park.

On this anniversary, we are proud of the accomplishments of a local grassroots movement, spurred on by the families of victims Liam Wood, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King. Their passion pushed national standards in ways even the most optimistic among us doubted were possible.

Now we need to continue to build on those efforts.

Pipeline safety activists and our local, state and congressional leaders have raised the bar for safety standards, but it needs to go higher still.

• The federal Office of Pipeline Safety has more detailed record-keeping and reporting rules that will help track pipeline company's safety records. Any spill of more than 5 gallons must be reported by the pipeline company.

• Testing requirements are now in place for lines that previously would never have been required to be tested after installation.

• There are new training requirements for pipeline operators.

• There are more pipeline inspectors.

• Thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, Washington state has its own Office of Pipeline Safety that interfaces with the federal office.

• There are new requirements for companies to implement their pipeline integrity-management plans.

The difficulty now will be keeping the spotlight shining on the pipeline industry so that Congress will close the gaps in safety requirements.

The issue gets attention when there are explosions or massive leaks, but there needs to be more focus on prevention.

Recent major spills from Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners lines in Tucson, Ariz., and a San Francisco Bay marsh have earned the attention of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has convened hearings to investigate. That response is positive, but it would have been better to be more pro-active.

• We need more testing. Only a fraction of the nation's more than 307,500 miles of liquid fuel lines will be tested under the new requirements. Only "critical areas" where lines run through cities or sensitive environmental areas are required to be tested. The Office of Pipeline Safety is making the decisions about which areas are critical, according to Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham-based Pipeline Safety Trust. State and local governments should have more input into the decision-making process because they better understand their own communities, where the schools are, where the parks are and where the largest concerns exist for public safety.

• More information needs to be made public. Some pipeline information is being kept secret because of concerns by the Department of Homeland Security over terrorist plots. But included in that unreleased information is the result of pipeline tests and what the company did to inspect and/or repair damage it found, Weimer said. Keeping that information away from the public limits watchdog activity.

• There are changes that can take place at the state level, as well. Pipeline companies will be the first to say that third-party damage, caused by things like backhoes digging things up, is a frequent cause of pipeline ruptures. Our state has a one-call system that asks people to call before they dig so that any utility lines and pipes won't be disturbed, but there is no legal requirement to do so and people are only penalized if they cause damage, Weimer said.

In 2000, a work crew replacing a city sewer line in Bellingham's Columbia neighborhood struck a gas line that Cascade Natural Gas Corp. had neglected to mark. The line, at the corner of Elizabeth and West Connecticut streets, caused an explosion that sent debris over rooftops.

In some places, pipelines are so shallow that even someone putting in a fencepost might strike one. The state Legislature should require people to call before they dig.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission also has lobbied in favor of a statewide system and increased penalties for third-party damage but the state has yet to enact a law with teeth, according to Weimer.

Before the pipeline explosion, the underground fuel lines were out-of-sight and out-of-mind. That may never be the case again. And that's a good thing.

The work done on behalf of Liam, Wade and Stephen has had national and even international impacts.

Pipelines remain the safest way to transport the fuel that most of us depend on daily. When the knowledge and expertise exist to make our pipelines safer, there is no reason that shouldn't happen.


Bellingham's Pipeline Safety Legacy

Five years ago today because of negligence, poor management, lack of oversight and near nonexistent regulations, the Olympic Pipe Line Co.’s pipeline burst and then exploded. In a flash three of our own were killed, Whatcom Creek was dead and our community was sent into a deep sense of loss and mourning. Many of us can still remember the sick feeling that came over us as we watched that ominous black cloud rise overhead.

Fortunately for the country, this community was reawakened from our grief by the noise of industry public-relations professionals. They told us that "pipelines are the safest way to move gas," "accidents like this are very rare," "eating peanut butter is more dangerous than living by a pipeline," and that they would have the pipeline fixed and back in the ground in no time.

In a flash, Bellingham did something very rare, and at a level previously unheard of. We said "No!" No, you are not restarting your pipeline before we know why it burst. No, we are not going to accept all your half-truths and twisted logic. No, we don't understand why there are no regulations to prevent this. No, we won't let this happen again, anywhere.

The industry winked and guffawed at our naivete, but in the end, Olympic Pipe Line Co.'s pipeline stayed closed longer than any other pipeline in U.S. history, and for the first time pipeline employees went to jail for their negligence. Congress and state legislatures passed new pipeline laws, agencies drew up new rules, oversight committees were formed, and people in communities around the country began asking similar questions about pipeline safety. In just five years, Bellingham's efforts have become synonymous with when pipeline safety began to increase in this country, and for that we should all feel pride.

Of course, there is still much to do, but it is only normal that as time passes, the tragedy gets more remote, and other more pressing priorities take our eyes off of pipeline safety. The pipeline laws that were passed are still full of holes, and regulators have a way of being romanced by industry if they don't ever hear from anyone else. Industry is biding its time waiting for this temporary uproar to pass.

Fortunately for this country, some Bellingham residents, including parents who lost their children in this terrible tragedy had the foresight to plan for the future. They made their No. 1 priority starting an independent, well-funded organization that would keep pressing for safer pipelines even after many in this community have forgotten what happened here. Their success in obtaining $4 million as an endowment for a Pipeline Safety Trust will ensure that Bellingham's legacy of pipeline safety advocacy lives on.

The vision of the Pipeline Safety Trust is a simple vision. We believe that communities should feel safe about the pipelines that run through them, and trust that their government is pro-actively working to prevent pipeline hazards. We believe that the communities who have the most to lose if something goes wrong with a pipeline should be included in discussions of how better to prevent pipeline releases. And we believe that only when trusted partnerships between pipeline companies, government, communities, and safety advocates are formed, with the goal of promoting community safety and environmental protection, will pipelines truly be safer.

The Pipeline Safety Trust is now just starting to embark on this vision. To our knowledge the trust is now the only organization in the country, other than government and industry, that has a full-time paid staff to work on preventing future pipeline accidents. As the federal judge who awarded the trust the $4 million said, this truly is a "Bambi versus Godzilla" undertaking, but with the strong foundation that Bellingham has laid, and the stories of Wade King, Stephen Tsiorvas, and Liam Wood etched indelibly in our minds, we will continue to move into the wind. Thank you, Bellingham.

Carl Weimer is the executive director of the Bellingham-based Pipeline Safety Trust.


300 N. Commercial, Suite B, Bellingham, WA 98225 Phone: 360-543-5686 Fax: 360-543-0978