The Day Bellingham ‘Lost Its Innocence’

by Meghan Fenwick

Longtime Bellingham residents remember it well: At 5:02 p.m. on June 10, 1999, the summer evening sky darkened. Across the city, residents stepped outside to witness the 30,000-foot-tall wall of smoke erupting from Whatcom Falls Park.

On that day, the city was forever changed.

Whatcom Creek Pipeline Explosion

photo: Angela Lee Holstrom,
This photo of the pipeline explosion was taken at the corner of James and Virginia Streets.
A plume of black smoke from the pipeline explosion rose six miles high.

I always ask people where they were during that time, because I think it’s sort of like when JFK was shot,” said Renee LaCroix. “Everybody just remembers exactly what they were doing.” LaCroix is the assistant director of the Natural Resources Division of Bellingham’s Public Works Department.

That summer, nearly 25 years ago, LaCroix was a graduate student at Western Washington University. She was jogging with a friend along Bellingham Bay. When they saw the smoke, they stopped. LaCroix lived near the creek, and, as they walked home, the extent of the explosion became apparent. She caught a glimpse of the creek and was horrified to see milky-white and black water with dead fish floating on the surface.

I’ve heard others say this, but Bellingham had lost its innocence that day,” said LaCroix.

The creek went up in flames near Bellingham’s water treatment plant in Whatcom Falls Park. The fire and fumes took the lives of 18-year-old Liam Wood and two 10 year olds, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas. All three were enjoying the public park.

No aquatic life in the burn zone survived that day. The City of Bellingham estimates that more than 100,000 fish died as a result of the fire, including salmon, trout, lamprey and crayfish. Twenty-six acres of vegetation was lost, including 16 acres of mature trees. Mammals, birds, amphibians and insects died, their habitat destroyed.

Fueled by 237,000 gallons of gasoline that leaked from a ruptured pipeline owned by the Olympic Pipe Line Company, flames traveled a mile and a half downstream and stopped just before the interstate.

A series of deficiencies in Olympic’s pipeline maintenance led to the tragedy. It began with a construction company contracted to work on the city’s water treatment plant. The company dented the pipeline in 1994 and did not report it to Olympic, though Olympic eventually discovered the damage through internal inspections and never addressed it.

Little physical evidence of the devastation remains on the public trail system that winds through the park, save for a few dead trees that passersby might miss if they don’t look up. The creek’s rehabilitation is a result of a collaborative effort by federal, state and municipal agencies as well as volunteers and nonprofit organizations.

Bellingham is the reason we exist,” said Kenneth Clarkson, communications and outreach director for the Pipeline Safety Trust. “It’s the reason every day we fight for safer pipelines and for better legislation to protect people and the environment. It’s important to re-engage with the community as community changes, and this is a tragedy that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Pipeline Safety Trust (1), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving pipeline safety, is committed to keeping Bellingham’s story at the forefront. PST will be hosting a series of events throughout June to commemorate the tragedy.

pipeline explosion commemoration events

Demanding Change

Creek walks have been a staple of the organization since 1999. It’s where representatives, regulators and industry leaders come to learn the lessons that the Bellingham community was forced to reconcile with that summer.

In 1999, few Bellingham residents were aware that a pipeline cut through their town. When the creek erupted, rumors of a plane crash spread. Carl Weimer, founding member and special programs manager of Pipeline Safety Trust, was working at The RE Store at the time when someone ran in and exclaimed “downtown just blew up!”

Google was a new thing at that point, and if you searched for pipeline safety you might get two or three things,” Weimer said. “Now you get inundated.”

In the following days, months and years, the Bellingham community demanded answers. The Olympic Pipe Line Company communicated a desire to resume operations just days after the tragedy, citing fuel shortages at SeaTac, but was rebuffed.

Pipeline explosion chronology

The company, headquartered in Renton, Wash., owned and operated the 400-mile pipeline that stretches from Blaine to Portland, Oregon. BP [formerly British Petroleum] first bought two-thirds interest in the pipeline in 2001, and bought the last third stake in 2005.

Weimer met with local neighborhood associations, environmental groups, lawyers and doctors that summer for breakfast at Old Town Cafe to parse through the information they had. It was here that the Pipeline Safety Trust emerged, originally called SAFE Bellingham.

The grassroots organization sought justice for the families of the victims, stricter regulations and the monitoring of all surrounding pipelines. It sought to reduce incidents like Bellingham’s. PST began letter-writing campaigns and petition drives. Group members even testified before Congress in the fall of 1999.

We came together and continued to push,” Weimer said. “The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board went on and on, ‘I don’t know what’s different in Bellingham, what they’re drinking in that water up there, but they seem to have this activist mindset that won’t let go.’”

Weimer contributes much of their success as the only nonprofit watchdog on the national pipeline industry to the parents of the young boys who lost their lives that day. Liam Wood’s mother, Marlene Robinson, and stepfather, Bruce Babec; Wade King’s mother and father, Mary and Frank King; and Stephen Tsiorvas’ mother, Katherine Dalen, and stepfather, Skip Williams. Each advocated for change in the wake of their grief.

New pipeline safety regulations and laws were adopted at the state and federal level in the following years. The Olympic Pipe Line Company amassed more than $187 million in fines, penalties and settlements. For the first time, pipeline employees were convicted and jailed for their negligence. The pipeline would not resume operations at Whatcom Falls Park for almost two years, the longest shutdown after an incident in U.S. history.

Before the tragedy, operators were never required to inspect their pipelines. Now, not only are regular checks required, but the findings must be reported. Communication between the operators, the public and government agencies improved tenfold, according to Weimer. What was once an invisible danger lurking beneath trail-goers at Whatcom Falls Park is now marked by mandated bright-red signposts listing the product, operator and an emergency number.

pipeline explosion photo 2

photo: Tore Ofteness
A 75-member crew worked seven days a week to extract hydrocarbons
from the sediments in the creek, The burned area was broken down into
sections A, B and C because each required different remediations and

Healing the Creek

Whatcom Creek runs through the heart of Bellingham, beginning at Lake Whatcom and ending at Bellingham Bay. It weaves through an old-growth forest (reduced after the fire), creates habitat for a variety of wildlife species, and inspires the infrastructure of the city as it stands today.

From time immemorial, Coast Salish tribes, such as Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe, stewarded Whatcom Creek, Bellingham Bay and the rest of the watershed, establishing seasonal fishing and shellfish harvesting encampments along its banks. In the 1850s, European colonizers, in a joint effort with Lummi Nation, created the first sawmill at present-day Whatcom Falls. The word Whatcom, which later became the name of the county, is adapted from the Coast Salish language, meaning noisy or rumbling water.

Renee Lacroix was first hired as the project lead for the City of Bellingham’s restoration effort soon after the explosion. Two large-scale projects were completed in 2006: the Salmon Park Project and the Cemetery Creek Project (2). Signs along Whatcom Falls Park serve as a reminder that the work is ongoing, asking hikers to stay on the designated trails.

Once an event like this has happened, it sets the creek off on a different trajectory,” LaCroix said. “It’s always going to be a creek that has been restored. It’s still going to be an amazing, healthy creek, and, 100 or 200 years in the future, we’ll have a huge mass of trees in there. It’s just on a different trajectory now, and it’ll go through its own evolution.”

Before a full-scale restoration could start, an immediate emergency response was needed to ensure the safety of the community, remove contaminants and protect the water treatment plant. Initial efforts included collecting data on wildlife mortality rates and excavating contaminated soil. The fire burned so fast and so hot that the water in Hannah and Whatcom creeks vaporized, so the gas quickly settled in the streambed.

pipeline explosion photo 3

photo: Tore Ofteness
The explosion created a burned-out deadzone along Whatcom Creek for
one and a half miles and left 1,600 tons of gasoline-soaked soil.

Today, Whatcom Creek hosts vital spawning grounds for coho, Chinook, chum, pink, and sockeye salmon. While drafting a restoration plan, LaCroix and her team were able to take a holistic look at the entire riparian system and enhance salmon habitat. Some strategies included reconnecting lost channels, creating floodplains and other features for salmon to take a break from high stream velocities, as well as providing cover through tree planting.

The habitat restoration process provided another avenue for community members to channel their frustration and grief in the aftermath of the tragedy. In October 1999, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) (3) hosted the first volunteer work party since the explosion downstream from the burn zone. Since 2017, NSEA has planted almost 3,000 trees and removed 21,000 pounds of invasive vegetation.

Rachel Vasak, executive director of NSEA, began volunteering for NSEA while studying at Western Washington University in 1996. By 1999, she had a full-time position with the organization, and had participated and helped organize many work parties. NSEA usually saw a turnout of around 15-20 volunteers. The first volunteer event after the fire, more than 100 people came, providing donuts and coffee and looking for any way to lend a helping hand.

It was an honor to get to be there and help give those volunteers something meaningful to do, because digging out blackberries and picking up garbage and planting trees along a portion of Whatcom Creek felt healing to people at the time,” Vasak said.

The Saturday work-party tradition lives on as a collaboration between the City of Bellingham, NSEA, Whatcom Land Trust (4) and others. Every weekend in the spring and fall, volunteers grab gloves and shovels and work to improve Bellingham’s natural habitats.

I think that gives people hope, where they’re taking initiative and putting energy into establishing a future that they want for their community,” LaCroix said.

While the black scar that once blanketed the roaring falls of Whatcom Creek has mostly healed, some remnants remain.

Liam Wood, the 18-year-old victim, was fly-fishing, his favorite hobby the day of the fire in Whatcom Creek, when he was overcome by fumes and drowned. At Weimer’s desk in the PST office sits a bright blue fishing fly encased in a clear paperweight. The same paperweight is displayed at the headquarters’ desks of Marathon Petroleum Corporation in Ohio. Officials there were struck by Liam’s story and tracked down the specific fly to create a reminder of the preventable and unimaginable tragedy.

For me, there’s a few reasons to keep sharing this history, out of respect for the different layers of the tragedy and for the families that lost their precious children,” Vasak said. “The policy work that [PST] does – they are the leaders of taking the lessons learned and trying to apply those so others don’t experience the same loss.”

Events are hosted in partnership with Pipeline Safety Trust, City of Bellingham, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, RE Sources, and Whatcom Land Trust. For more information, visit

Whatcom Creek waterfall 10 years later

photo: Emily Linroth
This photo of a small falls near the upper falls of Whatcom Creek was
taken 10 years after the pipeline explosion.

Aftermath: Recent Pipeline Incidents

The pipeline explosion in Whatcom Creek was not the first or last pipeline incident that took lives. Since 2004, 5,774 significant pipeline incidents have occurred in the United States, resulting in 260 fatalities, 1,047 injuries and $13 billion in damages.

There are more than three million miles of pipelines throughout the country, according to the National Pipeline Mapping System. The database was created by the U.S Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety and is maintained by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) (5). In 2004, PHMSA improved the mapping system, originally created in the 1990s, by requiring pipeline operators to provide more comprehensive data.

On Dec.10, 2023, the Olympic pipeline, now owned by BP, saw another spill in Conway, Wash., about 32 miles from the Whatcom Creek explosion. About 25,000 gallons of gasoline escaped. No injuries or fatalities resulted.

It’s just awful to see another failure off that line, especially so close to here,” said Kenneth Clarkson, communications and outreach director for the Pipeline Safety Trust. “So much has been done since ‘99, but there are still failures throughout the country on all different kinds of pipelines. This one being the pipeline that is the only reason the trust exists, it was really hard for us.”

Pipeline Safety Trust feels that PHMSA is critically underfunded and understaffed. In addition to regulating pipelines, it is responsible for overseeing the transportation of all hazardous materials, including by plane, boat, or, in the case of the East Palestine, Ohio disaster, train.

As the United States continues to see an average of 289 pipeline incidents a year, and, as the energy infrastructure grows and changes, PST reminds lawmakers and industry leaders to keep safety in mind.

pipeline explosion yearly timeline

Two emerging pipeline safety concerns are related to the decarbonization movement. Whatcom County’s goal is net zero emissions by 2050, and, in 2021, the County Council banned the development of new fossil-fuel facilities. The interest in clean hydrogen and carbon dioxide sequestration pose unique pipeline safety questions.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act appropriated more than $20 billion to clean hydrogen and carbon sequestration projects combined. Carbon dioxide is odorless and colorless, which threatens the ability to detect a leak in a timely manner. Hydrogen burns hotter and is more prone to explode than methane, and a hydrogen flame is invisible in daylight.

Washington is projected to be one of the hydrogen hubs that the government is offering a bunch of money for,” Clarkson said. “We don’t know of any specific pipeline plans yet, but if things move forward and there are hydrogen-producing facilities in Whatcom County, there will be hydrogen pipelines. We want to see safer, stricter regulations for these pipelines.”

PST has offered recommendations to PHMSA as new pipelines carrying new materials are developed or proposed. They ask for more rules and definitions specific to carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the laws that govern their transport, more research to better understand how these materials will interact with the technology, and more requirements for operators to monitor and share data.

In 2004, the Pipeline Safety Trust received $4 million from Olympic Pipe Line Company’s fines and penalties to continue to relay this kind of information to all parties. Other funds were given to Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom Land Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open spaces. Settlement funds continue to pay for habitat restoration and acquisition.

About $12 million from state and federal penalties were invested back into Whatcom County’s greenspaces. One $4 million fund was created to generate interest for habitat enhancement in Bellingham. The principal cannot be touched until 2049, 50 years after the incident. In the meantime, The Cemetery Creek, Salmon Park, and Red Tail Reach (6) projects were paid for by the accrued interest. Planning documents, grant applications, monitoring and maintenance of these projects were also funded by this interest.

The Red Tail Reach site is located upstream of the intersection between Whatcom Creek and I-5. The project was named after a red-tailed hawk that lived in the creek before, during and after the tragedy. Renee Lacroix, of Bellingham’s Natural Resources Division, remembers seeing its nest outside the burn zone and watching it fly over her head during each phase of restoration.

We continue to see red-tailed hawks, we see great blue herons,” LaCroix said. “It’s a really impressive diversity of species. I think it speaks to not only what we were able to do for Whatcom Creek, but also the health of the rest of the city’s ecosystem. Whatcom Creek alone wouldn’t be able to support a lot of those species without the connectivity to other areas of the city.”

One of the city’s most recent projects that used the interest funds was the Little Squalicum Estuary, completed in 2023. The city excavated 2.4 acres of land to create the waterway, removed a fish barrier that divided Squalicum Creek and Bellingham Bay, and relocated 1,100 fish. The project earned an Engineering Excellence Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies.


Meghan Fenwick is a graduate of Western Washington University who recently earned her degree in environmental journalism.







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