Bellingham’s Pipeline Safety Legacy

By Carl Weimer

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 naiveté, 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.