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In Bellingham, Pipeline Safety Trust started in response to a local tragedy whose national impact the organization would help catalyze. The nonprofit works to educate the public on pipeline safety issues near them and partner with organizations to ensure safer communities, infrastructure, and environments.

“The Pipeline Safety Trust was founded after the 1999 Olympic Pipe Line Explosion in Whatcom Falls Park,” says Communications Director Kenneth Clarkson.

On June 10, 1999, nearly 250,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from the ruptured Olympic pipeline into Whatcom Creek. The gasoline ultimately ignited and then killed two boys, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, and a young man, Liam Wood. All three of them were enjoying a normal late spring day in the park when it happened.

“In addition to the three fatalities,” Clarkson says, ”the pipeline explosion devastated the Whatcom Creek ecosystem and more-than-shook the Bellingham community. Everything in the creek from the rupture location to the Bay died.”

The Trust has marked every anniversary of the explosion, and has planned educational events for the 25th anniversary in 2024.

The memorial totem created by the Lummi House of Tears Carvers in 2006 commemorates the victim’s lives, and stood on Whatcom Creek before moving closer to the site at Whatcom Falls Park. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

“Following the tragedy, the community of Bellingham and its elected representatives banded together and demanded change,” Clarkson says. “As a result the Olympic Pipe Line Company had to pay over $180 million in settlements and fines, with $4 million of that money going to the creation of the Pipeline Safety Trust from a criminal settlement, forming the nation’s only watchdog organization on the pipeline industry and its regulators.”

While Judge Barbara Rothstein originally likened it to “Bambi taking on Godzilla,” the Trust has grown to influence industry safety nationally.

Education and Programs

Pipeline Safety Trust provides free, publicly accessible information for communities, landowners, and local governments on their website, plus programs such as conferences and policy advocacy.

“Transparency is critically important to us as an organization,” says Clarkson. “Some examples of our programs are: providing communities with information about pipeline hazards in their communities, providing landowners with information pipeline risks and hazards, educating the public about the risks of CO2 and Hydrogen through pipeline transportation, auditing state pipeline regulator website’s for transparency, providing data and visualizations on pipeline incident statistics, assisting the media with understanding pipeline issues and working with partners such as residents, safety advocates, government, and industry, in order to create safer communities and a healthier environment.”

Stephen Tsiorvas is remembered by the sculpture by Shirley Erickson at his monument in Bayview Cemetery. Photo courtesy Pipeline Safety Trust

Recently, the Pipeline Safety Trust has raised awareness about proposed construction of hydrogen pipelines in Washington — including Whatcom County — and their potential safety risks.

“Protecting our communities from the hazards pipelines can pose is the ultimate importance of our work,” Clarkson says. “We see a world in which there are zero pipeline incidents and communities where residents feel safe from the hazards of energy infrastructure, communities where residents trust their government to protect them from hazards, government authorities that are proactive and innovative in their approaches to accident prevention, energy production, distribution and consumption that promotes sustainable development, energy and utility industries that partner with communities to promote safety and environmental protection, communities that are empowered with information and technical expertise, and communities where residents have a meaningful voice in pipeline decision-making.”

Envisioning Safe Communities

Over the years, Pipeline Safety Trust has grown from a two-to-three-person operation to 10 staff members.

“Pipeline Safety Trust was formed because the Bellingham community banded together and demanded change,” says Clarkson. “The 1999 Olympic Pipe Line tragedy influences our work every day.” The trust works not only in Bellingham, but throughout the country to make sure no community has to endure the same experience. “Sadly, there have been incidents since Bellingham and some have been fatal; the U.S. averages nearly one pipeline incident a day. More must be done in order to protect our communities, here in Bellingham and throughout the nation.”

The parents of Wade King joined advocacy efforts for pipeline safety, and Wade King Elementary and WWU’s Wade King Student Recreation Center are named in his memory. Photo courtesy Pipeline Safety Trust

The Trust’s community partners have included the City of Bellingham, Whatcom Land Trust, NSEA, and Re-Sources.

Get Involved

Pipeline Safety Trust has organized work parties, film screenings, creek walks, safety webinars, interpretive signage, and a remembrance gathering for the 25th anniversary commemoration.

“We’re holding these events to honor the lives lost in the horrific 1999 Olympic Pipe Line tragedy and to connect with community members both new and old,” Clarkson says. “This event is an important part of our town’s history and it should never be forgotten.”

Liam Wood is remembered for his love of flyfishing, and several programs are named in his memory. Photo courtesy Pipeline Safety Trust

Locals can also support Pipeline Safety Trust through participation opportunities and donations.

“All of the events are free and open to the public,” says Clarkson. The organization hopes to see the community out at these events and looks forward to making new connections and revisiting old ones.

A Community Remembrance Gathering at Bellingham High School on June 10 at 6 p.m. will be a great opportunity for new community members to learn the story of the Olympic Pipe Line explosion and for longtime residents to revisit the events of that day. There will be speakers, music, educational displays, and time for community sharing and remembrance.

To learn more, visit the Trust’s website, Facebook, Instagram, or newsletter.

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