These are the thoughts and reflections from people who live in other parts of the country in 2004 on the 5th anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy.
What has been learned from Bellingham over the last five years? I would sum up what I have learned very simply. We don’t regulate according to the most basic rule—do unto others as you would have done unto you. We regulate according to a different rule—it’s OK to kill a few people as long as the persons killed appear to have been chosen randomly. There is really nothing random about it—it is perfectly predictable that rules that permit a few explosions and hope for the best will eventually kill people. None of us would want to be that person. None of us would want to put one of our loved ones in that harms way. But we’ll regulate to have that result for somebody’s loved one and, provided the odds of it happening are not too high, we go ahead and accept it. Worse yet, we accept it with the rationale that it saves us money on our energy.
Who of us could imagine saying, my child can be burned alive so that it is more economical to fill my gas tank? Who of us can imagine saying, my friend can be burned alive so that I can have a lower monthly gas bill? Who of us would say, let’s risk the lives of whole communities by building LNG facilities in populated areas rather than impose higher energy efficiency standards on natural gas appliances? It has been more than a decade since we have imposed higher energy efficiency standards on vehicles. While technology now makes more efficient use of energy easily achievable, we do not impose it on ourselves. Instead, we risk lives.
We regulate pipelines so that safety costs are kept low. If we regulated based the theory of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, we would promulgate rules that entail fail safe measures because none of us would want to be killed by a pipeline. But that would mean that our energy would cost more. So, instead, we make rules that kill a few people so that we can have cheaper energy. We make rules that violate the most basic rule of all.
Carol Parker, Citizens for Safe Pipelines, New Mexico
The tragedy in Bellingham has had a profound effect on Austin, TX. In 1999, we were fighting plans by Longhorn to revive a broken-down, 50-year-old crude oil line and pressurize it to carry gasoline and jet fuel. The tragedy in Bellingham was the horrible example we all feared could happen here. Then Frank King came to Austin and spoke so powerfully about the history of neglect, deception and complete lack of accountability in the industry that led to the Bellingham tragedy and galvanized us to fight the Longhorn pipeline even more vigorously. We’ve managed to delay it for 5 years, although it is scheduled to start up soon. We are all praying we won’t experience your suffering here and our hearts are with you as this anniversary approaches.
Brigid Shea, Austin, TX
Aside from being immensely saddened by the events in Bellingham, I and other city and county officials were galvanized into action by this event. Many of us asked the question “if it could happen in Bellingham, why could it not happen here?”. These concerns led to the formation of the City and County Pipeline Safety Consortium which I believe has had some positive influence in improving hazardous pipeline safety in Washington and perhaps nation-wide. In addition to Renton City Council members assisting with the successful lobbying effort at the state legislature to provide a state program to inspect interstate pipelines, the Consortium focussed on public awareness and worked with Municipal Research to draft a model franchise agreement that is currently being negotiated with the Olympic Pipeline Company. The Consortium also hired experts, Bob Eiber and Rick Kuprewicz to track and provide input on the implementation of the corrective action orders against Olympic Pipeline Company, and to analyze and comment upon regulatory changes at the Office of Pipeline Safety. In some small, or maybe not so small, ways the Pipeline Safety Consortium has contributed to improved safety and heightened awareness about hazardous liquid pipelines in Washington State.
As a human being and the father of a 10-year old son, I wish with all my heart that the Bellingham incident had never happened. I was present personally along with Renton’s Mayor and other elected officials representing jurisdictions along the pipeline route to hear the testimony of the families when they spoke to Patti Murray and Slade Gordon at the hearing in Bellingham, and it was hard to check the tears. Nothing will ever make this right, but I hope the family members can take some consolation in the fact that the Olympic pipelines and I believe hazardous liquid pipelines throughout the country are now better managed, better regulated, and safer than they were before the Bellingham incident. I truly believe lives will be saved. And it is mainly due to the efforts of the family members and concerned citizens such as yourself and local elected officials working for the safety of their constituents that positive changes have been made.
Thank you for this opportunity to let you know my thoughts on this subject.
Gregg Zimmerman, P.E., Administrator of the Planning/Building/Public Works Dept., Renton, Washington
The pipeline explosion in Bellingham was a wake up call for citizens to get involved in protecting their own safety. Seeing the plumes of smoke and fire that resembled a nuclear explosion brought home the possible devastation to any and all communities that have pipelines and the immediate questions of How did this happen? and Could it happen to me and my family and my community? This was particularly of concern to me as the Mayor of Bellevue, with the Olympic pipelines going through the middle of my city and right next to my church.
Serving on the committee appointed by Governor Locke to review what went wrong and sitting in meetings with Olympic pipeline officials I realized that pipeline control was largely in the hands of the Federal government (the Office of Pipeline Safety) and local control and oversight was “preempted” by the Feds. Also, having served 29 years with the oversight agency the U.S. General Accounting Office, I was shocked to learn that only one Federal inspector covered three states and the audits were largely “paper audits”. Nobody was effectively out in the field talking to the line workers and inspecting the pipeline and related equipment. Also, at that time it was apparent that the OPS folks and the pipeline folks were way too cozy. I even went to a National League of Cities conference at which the then Director of OPS had a reception sponsored by the pipeline companies.
The good news is that I, and others, lobbied the Congress and got great support from Senator Murray, and Representatives Jennifer Dunn, Rick Larson and Jay Inslee in particular. I also got the Association of Washington Cities and the National League of Cities to adopt resolutions supporting legislation to improve pipeline safety and testified on the need before the Congress. Subsequently, the Congress and our own state legislature passed bills strenghening pipeline oversight. The Washington State Citizens Committee on Pipeline Safety was established by Governor Locke and this group successfully lobbied the state to set up an Office of Pipeline Safety under the WUTC paid for by pipeline fees. This Committee is the only one in the country and the many citizen members have continued the effort to improve pipeline safety. Also, I am delighted to report that the WUTC inspectors have inspected all the pipelines in Washington State. I feel that it does not guarantee that accidents won’t happen but it does assure citizens that if it happens it will not result from sloppy neglect and people throughout the state will be better prepared to deal with the emergency and minimize the impact to the public. I am also happy to report that the OPS is now managed by Stacey Gerard and OPS has been very active in improving pipeline safety.
All this does not pay for the devastation and the loss of life that occurred in Bellingham. Our prayers still go out to the families of those who died. It does mean that those deaths were not in vain and that the people of the state of Washington have taken the lesson to heart and are doing a lot to make sure that others will not suffer the same fate.
Chuck Moser, Former Mayor of Bellevue, Chairman, Washington State Citizen Committee on Pipeline Safety
“Today we remember and pay tribute to the victims of the pipeline tragedy – Liam Wood, Wade King, and Stephen Tsiorvas. The families of these individuals have shown incredible resilience in coping with this tragedy and persuading Congress to enact stronger pipeline safety regulations. Without the strong lobbying of the families and those who live along the pipeline, Congress might not have acted to make these pipelines safer. Every neighborhood in America deserves the same confidence in the safety of their pipelines as those who live along the lines where we have compelled companies to implement water testing. Five years from the tragic explosion we have won some victories in pipeline safety, but we still have work to do in ensuring that a similar pipeline disaster becomes less likely in Washington State.”
U.S. Representative Jay Inslee, Washington’s 1st Congressional District
My son’s name is Mac. He has grown to be a great big kid. We went and got him basketball shoes today, size 11! We have a lot of videos of him when he was small. The video you may have an interest in is Mac and the pipeline.
When the pipeline on our farm was built in 1995 we filmed it, and Mac!
Mac sitting on the pipeline, Mac playing in the ditch, Mac watching the guys build the pipeline. How many kids in America have a pipeline video?
When the pipeline failed in Bellingham I told Mac. Boys his size and age playing near a pipeline, just like him. We didn’t let Mac play next to the pipeline for a while, but he got bigger and faster and we couldn’t keep him back. Besides the pipeline is next to the barn.
So there is this big kid running around our farm that reminds me every day of what happened in Bellingham five years ago. Mac is alive and well living and working on this pipeline, maybe because safety has improved, maybe luck.
Glenn Archambault, Phoenix, Oregon
I was so saddened to hear about the young people that died so
needlessly. It made me more aware that it could have happened to anyone anywhere in the United States. I have said that there isn’t any death from an explosion of a pipeline that is acceptable, unlike what the pipeline company said to our landowners. I have written letters, letters and more letters that you can’t just bury a pipeline and forget it. Has any good come from this action, I don’t know. But, I do know this much. If we had not written all those letters, mailed in all those petitions, sent all those emails, sent all those faxes and called all those politicians, the pipeline companies would be sitting in their offices feeling pretty good about themselves. They would not have had anyone to set up roadblocks, force them to look at an alternative way or to make them accountable. Its like I explained to our members. I know what would happen if we do nothing; we will have a pipeline in our backyard. But if we work hard together as a group who knows what we may accomplish. We did work hard together as a group and right now we are pipeline free. I commend the parents for taking a tragedy and working to make a positive out of it for the memory of their children and the safeguard of other families. This is not the easy way because every time they talk about this event, its like it just happened. I am a very family oriented person and my heart goes out to them.
Jean Popovich, Stark & Columbiana County Landowners Association, OHIO
Here in NJ, Bellingham’s experience helped motivate our Governor to sue (whom? FERC? Williams? at this point, I can’t remember) to stop Transco from crossing my part of the state (the Great Swamp watershed, home to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area, and some very urban areas northeast of here.) NJ was successful in completing stopping the project here, and safety was an absolutely compelling reason for that success. I know that further southwest from here, a section of pipe was laid, but not the big project to take gas to NYC.
Don’t think Bellingham’s tragedy was meaningless here — because it wasn’t. I’m sorry that you will always have this sad day to remember and encourage you to continue in your efforts to ensure that the terrible experience wasn’t meaningless.
Julia Somers, Executive Director, The Great Swamp Watershed Association. New Jersey
This is what I thought about the Bellingham accident…
At the time of the accident, I lived in San Antonio, Texas. One of the boys killed was the same age as my son, Sam. I remember going and hugging my boy as I listened to the story on the news and pondered how fate picks and chooses. I didn’t know where this Bellingham place was, but… it seemed far enough away that I felt relief – we were safe. I remember watching my boy go off to go play, but my heart sank for the mom who too probably also watched her boy go off to play that day. What sorrow she must be feeling now. Who would ever think that something like this could happen and to someone as innocent and undeserving as children? Everyone’s lives forever changed by a spring and a screw and untrained employees, etc. No one meant for any of it to happen, yet it did.
After moving to Washington, I realized this Bellinghman place was up here. After I got started working on our Tacoma railroad rights of way, I learned everything I could about pipelines (we have several). The best educator was the CONSORTIUM! I found out that pipelines are ALL AROUND US and even were back in Texas – I just didn’t know it. Most people don’t realize pipelines are – where they are. We are living and moving around them all the time. I think the Bellingham tragedy really counted for something extremely important. It brought forth a new awareness and gave birth to new and better safety requirements. It educated us and made us want to do better – BE BETTER. So no matter how bad it was – good is already growing from it. We have become a part of a movement that cares enough to make the world safer and better educated.
…And somewhere up there… 3 boys are happy, free, and catching all the fish of their dreams. They already know we will do better.
Sally England, The City of Tacoma
How the Bellingham tragedy affected me
As an engineer for a public interest environmental organization in Washington, DC, I heard about the Bellingham pipeline tragedy within a day from David Bricklin, a Seattle-based attorney who represented those in Washington opposed to the now-forgotten Cross Cascade Pipeline. Several weeks before, David had me testify on the inadequacies of pipeline regulation and oversight before the Washington agency which approves new pipelines. The Bellingham tragedy confirmed many people’s worst fears about interstate pipelines and their lack of oversight, and Olympic Pipe Line subsequently withdrew its Cross Cascade Pipeline proposal.
Since June 10, 1999, the activists in Bellingham – including the parents of those who died – have joined with advocates nationwide and achieved important improvements in pipeline safety. From June 1999 until today, the community wanted the Bellingham tragedy to be the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill, i.e., an accident so well-known and unacceptable that major changes would take place to prevent recurrence. Though more pipeline safety improvements still are needed, the Bellingham activists’ relentless and sophisticated pursuit of this goal has been very effective, with numerous positive results such as an ongoing decline in oil pipeline accidents nationwide.
Lois N. Epstein, P.E., Senior Engineer, Oil and Gas Industry Specialist, Cook Inlet Keeper (Anchorage Office)
Having lost a child myself, I know how difficult it must have been for these parents to be out in the public at atime when one most needs to be left alone. Their courage and their compassion for others, that would have them sacrifice the private nature ofgrieving in order to change things so that other children could be safe, was an inspiration for me to keep on working with landowners here to get information so that we could have a voice, as well as to uncover the lies and dirty dealings of Dominion and FERC. I was probably still in shock when I took a group of landowners to a site visit so they could see first hand how another farmer dealt with a gas pipeline and could ask company engineers (not Dominion’s, they wouldn’t talk to us) questions about safety and what happens after it’s built. But I told myself that if these boys’ parents could do it, then I could too. They have been more than inspiration, they have been a ray of hope at a hopeless time. Every time I got tired of being run over or ignored, I thought of these boys and kept going. I thought how easily what happened in Bellingham could happen here and kept plugging away, trying to get information about construction, safety, integrity management, operations, etc, so that if the pipeline was built here, we would know what to look for to make the risk of future problems as low as possible and would know what to ask to be sure that things were being done properly. Knowing that you all were out there fighting to be heard, to make a change in a corrupt system, has made all the difference for me in being able to do thethings necessary to give our community a voice, things that I am not by nature inclined to do (such as public speaking or being persistent with intimidating folks who are trying really hard to let you know you are being a real pest). You have all been a source of strength and support so that I could keep going and not allow my grief to incapacitate me, but most especially the parents.
The video brings home the strength not only of the parents, but also your community. It is a message of inspiration for other communities that we can work on the grassroots level and make our voice heard. I wasn’t aware of all the visits to Congress, etc. that you all made. I suspect that the public outcry helped to keep a fire under all these officials who operate in a system that is disposed towards covering things up rather than bringing truth to light. But I think that what really brought about true change, rather than just a bit more “transparency,” was the courage of the parents, who put a human face on risk management and made the consequences of risk real to the people who too easily see it as simply a number.
In the past few years I’ve learned a great deal about the complexity of the pipeline industry and sometimes I wonder that there aren’t more accidents given all the millions of little things that could go wrong, not that one a day isn’t enough. The video shows so well that no one “minor” thing can be overlooked. I have come to respect the incredible responsibility that is attached to operating such a monster and have met people in the industry that are worthy of respect. But the video is a sobering reminder that it only takes a few folks to create a system and aculture that ignores the human side of risk andthat operates with a “wait till it blows” integrity management plan. I think it’s critical that industry folk have an attitude adjustment, that they are forced to see the human aspect of their business and learn to bring that into every decision made. I think Bellingham is a good first step, but only a first step. The industry is too fragmented – each company made up of subunits that don’t communicate all that well and there aren’t many generalists left to see the big picture. One construction director I spoke with told me that it really worries him that companies are now outsourcing all the pieces that go into building a pipeline. He told me that companies don’t know how to build pipelines anymore. That’s a really scary admission coming from a guy that is the head of all construction for one of the biggest companies in America. He’s honest and I trust him to do a good job – but I know too well what happens with outsourcing …. communication breakdown. You have to have one person who oversees the big picture and has their finger on everything, which is of course impossible with something that complex. But at least there’s the ability to control the chain of command when it’s all w/in the company. You hire folks you trust, who then hire folks they trust and you do enough supervision to be sure it’s working. Can’t do that with outsourcing. Bad enough they are not operating them correctly. What’s going to happen when you add dishonest operations with poor construction?
I can really relate to the person on the video who said that this would change their life forever. In some way, the juxtaposition of seeing up close the lies and dishonesty of the industry and FERC as an impacted landowner, the death of the boys at Bellingham and subsequent fight for change, and my daughter’sdeath has changed me forever as well.I want to see the system change and I believe it can change. I don’t really know how or what to do along those lines, but I know that I have to do something.
If there’s ever anything I can do to help out with your work, let me know.Also, if you want to share this with any of the parents, that is ok with me. I have hada series of computer and software crashes and lost addresses. You are welcome to use my words w/o my name if that would be useful in any way. I wanted to say how deeply and personally this has affected me, but I just don’t feel comfortable doing so on a group email that would identify me, as I am aware that there are FERC and company lurkers out there.
Thanks always for all your efforts and commitment to change,
Gini Cooper, Virginia
As citizens across the nation go about our busy schedules I would like to take a moment and personally thank everyone in Bellingham for all their work to educate the Public on Pipeline safety. The 5 anniversary of tragedy in your area that took 3 lives has not been forgotten and we all still grieve with you as we attempt to educate our local officials that yes it too can happen here! As citizens in WA State, we must support our WA State Citizens Committee for Pipeline Safety, whichhas been astep in the right direction.
Lynn Carman, Clark County Community Activist, WA