A disaster puts spotlight on pipeline safety

  • CHARRED REMAINS: Burnt trees along Whatcom Creek

    Fredrick Sears photo
  When a pipeline carrying gasoline exploded near a city park in Bellingham, Wash., earlier this summer, it fanned the flames of a battle over a new pipeline proposed for the state. Two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old fisherman died when the explosion ripped along Whatcom Creek, scorching 1.5 miles of riverbank and setting one home afire.

Though investigators are still learning exactly what caused the 277,000-gallon fuel leak that led to the explosion, the Olympic Pipe Line Co. of Renton, Wash., announced in July that it was withdrawing its plan to construct a 237-mile long pipeline across Washington state (HCN, 6/21/99).

The Cross Cascade Pipeline would have sent fuel from Puget Sound to the city of Pasco in eastern Washington, supplementing the fleet of Columbia River barges that ferry fuel into the inland Northwest. In the months prior to the explosion, pipeline critics had rallied to stop the Olympic Pipe Line Co., which planned to route the line over Snoqualmie Pass, through three state parks and North Bend, Wash.

Because the pipeline proposal may return, Susan Harper, an activist with the Cascade Columbia Alliance in Seattle, says her group, organized to fight the pipeline, is working with the National Pipeline Reform Coalition to lobby the federal Office of Pipeline Safety to enact strict safety rules nationwide.

"They're so closely in bed with the industry," Harper says of the pipeline safety office, "that the industry is almost self-regulating."

The Office of Pipeline Safety defends its record. Says spokeswoman Patricia Klinger: "We are doing the best job that we can."

- Dustin Solberg
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