Olympic Pipeline explosion
Whatcom Falls Park
|Date||June 10, 1999|
|Location||Bellingham, Washington's Whatcom Falls Park, United States|
On June 10, 1999, a gasoline pipeline operated by Olympic Pipeline Company exploded in Bellingham, Washington's Whatcom Falls Park. The disaster started at 3:25 that afternoon when a gasoline pipeline ruptured due to various errors and malfunctions on the part of Olympic Pipeline and others. The gasoline vapors exploded at 5:02, sending a fireball down Whatcom Creek. Three people died in the accident.
Olympic Pipeline Company runs a network of fuel pipes beginning at refineries in Whatcom County and Anacortes and running south to Seattle and Portland, Oregon. In 1999, the pipeline was owned and operated by Equilon, a joint venture between Shell and Texaco. Today the pipeline is owned by BP.
The disaster began as Olympic Pipeline was transporting gasoline from Cherry Point Refinery to terminals in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. A pressure relief valve that was not configured properly failed to open in the 16 inches (410 mm) pipeline, which resulted in a surge of pressure after an automatic valve shut for reasons unknown. This resulted in the line rupturing at 3:25 that afternoon, and gasoline began spilling into adjacent Hanna and Whatcom Creeks. As the gasoline continued to spill, many people in the area called 911 to report the leak, and an Olympic Pipeline employee who was in the area called the company to report it.
When the Bellingham Fire Department arrived, massive amounts of gasoline had turned the creek pink, and the fumes were overwhelming. The fire department notified Olympic Pipeline of the leak and evacuated the area around the creek.
The gasoline exploded at 5:02 PM. The black smoke from the explosion was visible from Vancouver to Anacortes, and the plume extended 30,000 feet (9,100 m). Whatcom Creek was turned into a river of fire, which exceeded 2,000 °F (1,090 °C). Local businesses were evacuated, Interstate 5 was closed to traffic, and the Coast Guard stopped maritime traffic in Bellingham Bay in case the fire traveled the entire length of the creek. However, the fire never extended past Interstate 5.
Emergency responders had stopped the fires by 6:30, and the smoke had dissipated by 7:00.
Three people died in the accident. The first was Liam Wood, 18, who was fly fishing in the creek. He succumbed to the fumes, fell unconscious into the creek and drowned, dying before the explosion. Two children, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, were playing near the creek confluence during the explosion. Both survived the blast, but, sustained severe burns, and died the next day at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. There were no additional deaths and 8 related injuries.
Most of the property damage was caused by the explosion. Many buildings had broken windows. One house was completely destroyed. The city's water treatment plant was near the explosion site, and while the building itself survived, everything inside was completely obliterated. The rupture allowed 277,000 US gallons (1,050,000 L) of gas to escape into the creek bed. The city needed to manually add the treatment chemicals to keep the water supply safe until the plant could be rebuilt.
Authorities all noted that the destruction and death toll was much lower than would be expected from such a large explosion. The reasons for this are that the explosion was centered in a large, forested park; the fires mostly stayed in Whatcom Creek; and the ignition happened before more gasoline had leaked, which would have then resulted in a much larger explosion. The exact cause of ignition was never identified.
After a three-year investigation, investigators pointed to a series of failures, and not just a single error, most of which were the fault of Olympic Pipeline. Olympic Pipeline had failed to properly train employees, and had to contend with a faulty computer system and pressure relief valve. In 1994, five years before the accident, a construction crew accidentally damaged the pipeline while constructing the city's water treatment plant, and Olympic Pipeline had failed to find or repair the damage.
Olympic, Equilon and several employees faced a seven count indictment after the investigation in 2002. The companies pled guilty to several of the charges, leading to a $112 million settlement, a record at the time. This was the first conviction against a pipeline company under the 1979 Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act.
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