It’s June 10 again, a hard day for the Pipeline Safety Trust and the greater community of Bellingham, Washington and an unspeakably difficult day for three families. Twenty-four years ago today, three boys were killed in the Olympic Pipeline Disaster.
It’s extremely challenging to speak about June 10 in any positive light. But, one thing we must keep in mind is that since that tragic day, pipeline safety within the United States has improved. However, it is beyond unfortunate this culture change occurred only due to the needless loss of three precious lives.
Since June 10, 1999, both the pipeline industry and its regulators have made steps to improve pipeline safety but have yet to reach a shared goal of zero pipeline incidents. And, to put it bluntly, we aren’t close. More must be done. No parent, family, or community deserves to experience what those in Bellingham did in the late spring of 1999 yet each year pipeline tragedies add new names to its list of victims.
The tragedy that took place 24 years ago today at Whatcom Creek now serves as both a cautionary tale and learning moment for members of the pipeline industry and its regulators.
Throughout the year, Pipeline Safety Trust provides interpretative walks of Whatcom Creek to members of both industry and government. We take individuals from all over the country into the serene sanctuary that is Whatcom Falls Park and watch as they awe at the beauty of the waterfall and the massive cedar and fir trees that flank the creek, the ancients who stand like sentries guarding the clear water below.
It always happens, this moment of amazement. It happens right when our guests cross the stone bridge over Whatcom Creek. It happens before we begin to narrate the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute account of a completely-preventable tragedy.
This initial moment of amazement seems to ground our guests. They truly begin to process where they are, and for many of them, it’s a place they have either heard so much about or even studied. In seconds, they realize the forest they find themselves in is unbelievable. All of the sudden it’s easy for them to see why those three boys loved this place so much. Our visitors can hear with their own ears the rushing water, smell with their own noses the crisp evergreen-tinged air, and in a few moments, imagine with their own minds over 230,000 gallons of gasoline filling the creek below them, igniting, forming a colossal fireball, and wiping out all that surrounds them.
Each time we bring a different group of people to Whatcom Creek this paradox unfolds, and it always will. The co-mingled feelings of grief and hope are palpable no matter the time of day or year we give a tour. And, it’s necessary that every pipeline operator, regulator, community member, or co-worker we bring to the creek feels both of these emotions. Why? Because on the one hand, we need to remember, we need to feel the hurt in order to truly empathize, and on the other, we must hope that we continue to learn from this awful disaster and work toward meaningful solutions that will help achieve our shared goal of zero pipeline incidents.
In the last three years, several industry groups, pipeline regulators, and elected officials have toured Whatcom Creek with Pipeline Safety Trust. These groups include: PHMSA’s Accident and Investigation Division, PHMSA’s Leadership Team, Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA), pipeline industry trade groups and safety committees like API and LEPA’s Performance Excellence Team and INGAA, and Marathon Pipeline’s Leadership Team.
On this day, our entire staff, board, and community think about the families and all those affected by the reprehensible negligence on the part of the Olympic Pipeline Company.
Next year will be 25 years since Liam Wood, Stephen Tsiorvas, and Wade King lost their lives. Pipeline Safety Trust is working on plans for a special remembrance in Bellingham, WA to take place June 10, 2024.