The Disaster – June 10, 1999
After school on June 10, 1999, the next-to-last school day before the summer break, two 10-year-old fourth graders went to play in the park along Whatcom Creek near their homes in Bellingham, Washington. A local 18-year-old boy had graduated from high school earlier in the week, and went to do some fly-fishing in Whatcom Creek.
About 3:30 that afternoon, a 16-inch pipeline under the park burst. Pipeline operators detected the rupture about an hour later, and closed valves to isolate the ruptured section of pipeline. Still, 237,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline escaped the pipeline. The gasoline flowed downstream on the surface of the Whatcom Creek. The 18-year old fisherman, overcome by fumes, fell into the creek and drowned.
At 5:00, the fourth graders were playing near the creek. The gasoline ignited. A fireball traveled along Whatcom Creek for more than a mile devastating everything in its path. The two boys reportedly jumped into the water to escape the flames, but were horribly burned. They died the next day.
The fire also injured eight other people, destroyed a home, damaged the City of Bellingham’s water treatment plant, charred 26 acres of vegetation along the creek, and killed everything that lived in the creek including more than 100,000 fish.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Rules on Causes of Disaster
The NTSB determined that the probable causes of the disaster were:
- damage done to the pipe during a nearby construction project;
- inadequate inspection during that project;
- inadequate evaluation of in-line pipeline inspection results;
- failure to test safety devices;
- failure to investigate the repeated unintended closing of a block valve (which caused pressure surges); and
- the practice of performing database development work on the pipeline’s supervisory control and data acquisition system while the system was being used to operate the pipeline.
Environmental Enforcement Section Files Suit in 2002
The Environmental Enforcement Section (EES) filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May 2002, alleging that the rupture was caused by gross negligence in the operation and maintenance of the pipeline. The defendants were the pipeline owner, Olympic Pipe Line Co., and operator, Shell Pipeline Co. The suit sought injunctive relief and imposition of a civil penalty. Outcome:
- On January 17, 2003, ENRD announced consent decrees under which Shell would pay $10 million in civil penalties and Olympic Pipe Line Co. would pay $5 million. The penalties were shared equally with the state of Washington, and were imposed on top of $21 million in federal criminal fines paid by the companies under an earlier plea agreement.
- In addition, the consent decrees required the companies to upgrade their inspection, maintenance, repair and training programs. The injunctive relief covered all 2100 miles of Shell’s pipeline system, and the entire 400-mile length of the Olympic pipeline. EPA estimated the cost of the injunctive relief at more than $75 million.
In October 2004, EES negotiated another settlement consent decree, this one on behalf of federal natural resource trustees, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The natural resource damages consent decree was negotiated jointly with the State of Washington, the City of Bellingham, the Lummi Nation, and the Nooksack Tribe. The settlement required Olympic and Shell to transfer property worth $1.75 million to the City of Bellingham for use as parkland, and to pay $3.5 million to the trustees for use in restoration activities. While complete recovery of the creek ecosystem will probably take decades, restoration actions funded by the settlement and undertaken by the federal, state, and tribal trustees have improved the environment throughout the area affected by the fire.