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A pipeline exploded in Bellingham 22 years ago. It’s still influencing federal policy

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A 30,000-foot-tall cloud of black smoke billows from Whatcom Creek after a gasoline pipeline leaked into the creek and was ignited in this file photo taken June 10, 1999, in Bellingham, Wash. Two boys and a fisherman were killed in the incident. A web of about 157,000 miles of liquid-fuel pipelines crisscross the United States underground. Upcoming congressional hearings will put pipeline inspections in the spotlight.
A 30,000-foot-tall cloud of black smoke billows from Whatcom Creek after a gasoline pipeline leaked into the creek and was ignited in this file photo taken June 10, 1999, in Bellingham, Wash. Two boys and a fisherman were killed in the incident. A web of about 157,000 miles of liquid-fuel pipelines crisscross the United States underground. Upcoming congressional hearings will put pipeline inspections in the spotlight. (AP Photo/Bellingham Herald, Angela Lee Holstrom, File) Photo Gallery

BELLINGHAM — It’s been more than two decades since a leaking gas pipeline in Whatcom Falls Park resulted in a deadly explosion. But the incident is still serving as a potent lesson for the federal government.

Federal policymakers and regulators toured the site of the explosion on Thursday, Aug. 19, led by representatives from Bellingham’s Pipeline Safety Trust, which was formed in the aftermath of the 1999 disaster. The group included U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, whose congressional district includes Bellingham, and Tristan Brown, acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“My team here has been with the agency for decades,” said Brown, who was appointed by President Joe Biden in February. “And they still talk about this incident.”

On June 10, 1999, a series of human mistakes and mechanical errors led about 237,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline to leak out of an underground pipeline operated by Olympic Pipe Line Co., according to previous Bellingham Herald reporting. The gas seeped into Whatcom Creek and ignited around 5 p.m., turning the water body into a snaking channel of flames. The disaster killed two 10-year-old boys playing by the creek and an 18-year-old man. The fire burned for five days, scorching trees and killing any wildlife in its path. The disaster cost more than $187 million.

Although the explosion remains firmly established in much of the community’s memory, the only hints of the incident that can be found at Whatcom Falls Park today are several dead trees.

“There’s not really anything to see here any more,” said Carl Weimer, who is special projects advisor at the Pipeline Safety Trust and led Thursday’s tour. “But if (a tour) drives home the point that these pipelines aren’t innocuous, then we are happy to do it.”

Ever since the Olympic pipeline disaster, the community has been actively involved in regulations regarding fossil fuels, Weimer told the group as they strolled through the lush park. He believes that the social impact from the 1999 explosion played a role in the recent landmark decision by Whatcom County to ban the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, including refineries and coal-fired power plants.

There has been significant regulatory progress made since the 1999 explosion, including improvements to integrity management plans, excavation damage regulations and control room management, said Brown, the federal agency administrator. But the work is not over, he said.

Last year, the PIPES Act of 2020 was signed into law, resulting in dozens of mandates focused on preventing incidents like that which occurred in Bellingham. And the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has tripled its staff devoted to new safety regulations since the Biden administration took office in January, Brown said.

Link to climate change

There’s been another important shift in the pipeline safety conversation since the 1999 explosion: Human-caused climate change has risen to the top of many governments’ to-do lists as something to prevent and adapt to. For many jurisdictions, that means phasing out the use of planet-warming fossil fuels, like natural gas, while guaranteeing existing pipelines are properly maintained and overseen.

Methane leaks are one such area where environmental and pipeline safety policy overlap significantly, Rep. Larsen said. Not only can these leaks result in explosions, but they contribute significantly to climate change. Methane is a greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its planet-warming abilities, and reducing methane emissions has been highlighted by scientists as a key component in preventing the worst potential impacts of climate change.

But attempting to regulate methane leaks as a climate change issue will only get you so far in Congress, Rep. Larsen said. Some of his colleagues will outright refuse to work on any policy that involves the words “climate change.” Pipeline safety policy, however, can often garner bipartisan support while also curbing methane emissions.

“They don’t believe in climate change, they don’t want to work on the issue,” Larsen said. “On the other hand, methane leaks that pollute the air in local communities, that’s something they will work on.”

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