WA Pipeline Explosion Fines Help Rebuild
Fines connected with a pipeline explosion—which occurred in Bellingham, Washington, 20 years ago and killed three people—are reportedly continuing to pave the way toward restoring the area and developing pipeline safety across the country.
The Olympic Pipeline explosion, which occurred June 10, 1999, caused $58.4 million in property damage, along with the loss of 5,475 barrels of gasoline.
Olympic Pipeline Explosion
The 16-inch line, owned by Olympic Pipeline, dumped gasoline into Hanna and Whatcom creeks, resulting in three fatalities: Liam Wood, 18, and Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10. At the time of the incident, fuel was being moved from a Ferndale refinery, down south to Seattle and Portland around 3:30 p.m. A pressure relief valve failed, resulting in a rupture.
Evacuation of the area was launched after multiple reports of the smell of gasoline. Firefighters were able to get major flames under control by the early evening.
In October 2002, after a three-year investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the explosion was the result of a series of events, rather than just one: damage by IMCO General Construction Company in 1994 from excavation; Olympic failing to identify and repair the damage; a computer system that was malfunctioning and not reporting increased pressure in the pipeline; failure to properly train employees; and a faulty pressure relief valve.
The Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own investigation, resulting in a seven-count indictment. Olympic Pipeline, along with at-the-time pipeline operator Equilon Pipeline, were charged with five felony violations of the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act, as well as with two misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act.
The parents of the younger boys also filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The family of the third person settled out of court.
By December, Olympic pleaded guilty to one felony count under the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and the two Clean Water misdemeanors. The companies agreed to pay $112 million to address all federal criminal fines, as well as a number of civil issues. All told, the company faced more than $187 million in fines, penalties and settlements.
As a result of the incident, the Washington Pipeline Safety Act was signed into law, which permits the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission to inspect 2,500 miles of intrastate pipelines. The department also oversees the state’s pipeline-safety program.
Fine Payouts 20 Years After
According to the Bellingham Herald, $10 million in funding from federal penalties went to Whatcom County, $4 million of which went to a trust fund account for the Pipeline Safety Trust, $4 million toward an interest-generating fund to improve habitats within city limits, though the principal can’t be touched for 50 years. Around $840,000 of the $1.6 million in interest generated has been spent on local green restoration projects.
After Olympic filed for bankruptcy, the state Department of Ecology settled for a $2.5 million fine from the company, rather than $7.5 million, $1 million of which went to the Whatcom Land Trust for the acquisition and protection of property at Point Whitehorn, with much of the remaining funding go toward similar ends, other than $200,000 going to Ecology to develop response plans for oil spills.
The families of the young boys jointly received $75 million, $400,000 of which was donated by King’s family to Wade King Elementary School and $4 million to Western Washington University to help with athletic scholarships and recreational programs. Tsiorvas' family remained involved in the pipeline safety trust for a time, as well as giving a $100,000 grant to a local youth services program.
And Wood’s family donated time and money toward passing along the young man’s love of flyfishing to others by giving to the Liam Wood Flyfishers and River Guardians.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in the three major stream systems running through Bellingham—Padden, Whatcom and Squalicum creeks—and the marine nearshore,” said Renee LaCroix, assistant Public Works Director for the city of Bellingham.