Editor’s Note: This is an abbreviated version of the article. To read the full article go to: http://www.whatcomwatch.org/old_issues/v8i7.html#story1.
The Olympic Pipe Line explosion happened on June 10, 1999, on the afternoon of my daughter´s 7th birthday. We were outside picking flowers to decorate the table when we gazed up, awestruck, and saw the scariest billowing mass of smoke I had seen since Mt. St. Helens.
That evening before bed, I smelled gasoline fumes in the bathroom and fretted over whether they were flammable. The Bellingham Herald later reported that the fumes were dangerously high around 11 p.m., then dissipated, making evacuation unnecessary.
Undoubtedly each and every person who witnessed this event will remember exactly what they were doing and how they felt in the hours and days that followed.
Before reading the newspaper over the next few days, I learned to prepare myself for the inevitable tears by grabbing some kleenex before sitting down. My daughter´s questions were endless, “How can gasoline burn when it´s in water? How can a creek catch on fire? How did the boys die? When will we be able to go to the park again?”
After the initial shock wears off, we are faced with the intellectual and scientific challenge of understanding how best to repair and restore the crown jewel of Bellingham´s parks and salmon creeks.
On June 22, only 12 days after the explosion, a two-inch thick draft Emergency Restoration Plan (hereafter draft plan) was presented by Olympic Pipe Line, which has assumed the leading role in the restoration efforts and information management surrounding the explosion. Being that this pipeline saves oil companies millions of dollars in barging expenses, and reaps millions for Olympic, money is not an obstacle in the restoration efforts. The draft plan attempts to cover the many diverse and sometimes conflicting goals that are encompassed by this restoration. It includes voluminous data, a multitude of processes and theories, and requires considerable refinement (no pun intended).
Review and Impressions of the Draft Plan
Throughout the various interviews I conducted for this article, two diverse impressions of the process began to shine through. Participants involved with the draft plan´s implementation are encouraged by the level of expertise recruited, the support and interest stemming from the community at large, and Olympic Pipe Line´s willingness to spare no expense. Those outside the process consider it to be rather closed, lacking in public participation and access to information, and potentially dangerous due to some of the aggressive and intrusive restoration and remediation methods suggested in the initial draft of the plan.
Participants repeatedly state that this is a draft plan, subject to continuous revisions and scrutiny. As such, it includes a wide array of potential restoration options that could be utilized. As the teams in charge of the seven sub-plans review and revise their areas, these options are analyzed to determine the best possible choices out of the many options listed.
As the draft plan is revised and implemented, it is benefiting from constant scrutiny, updated data and on-site developments. This makes the draft plan implementation a “dynamic process that is performance and result-based,” according to James Luce, who represents the Bellingham Parks Department on the Joint Restoration Committee.
A cursory review of the revisions put forth so far demonstrates that some of the intrusive, heavy-handed methods are being replaced by more light-handed methods that utilize natural regeneration capabilities. However, the stream channel itself will be modified extensively with man-made structures to increase its viability as a salmon habitat.
Through email, phone comments and in writing, interested citizens and professionals have submitted hundreds of suggestions and ideas since the draft draft plan was released. This is happening despite the fact that no public participation has been authorized or required within the emergency phase of the restoration. The design of the long-term restoration draft plan will involve public participation, and volunteers can participate in planting projects outlined in the emergency plan.
Plan Design and Composition
The draft plan introduced the Joint Restoration Committee (JRC), the principal decision making body to oversee the restoration of Whatcom and Hanna Creeks. The JRC is composed of representatives from the local, state and federal governments, the Lummi and Nooksack tribes and Olympic Pipe Line.
The draft plan was put together by teams of biologists and restoration ecologists, hired by Olympic Pipe Line, along with the many government bureaucrats who have swarmed to Bellingham to participate in this remarkable restoration event.
According to the Executive Summary, the draft plan was “developed to address immediate restoration needs and to reduce the potential for secondary impacts, such as erosion, sedimentation, and reduction of fish spawning success” (draft draft plan, page 1). The plan provides an outline of the first phase of what is anticipated to be a multi-phased, long-term restoration project. The priority objectives are to:
1. Stabilize streambanks and hillsides potentially rendered more erosive by loss of vegetative and organic cover,
2. Remediate and reduce instream water and sediment contamination,
3. Initiate recovery and restoration of riparian habitat through protection of viable standing stock and rootstock,
4. Remove and remediate contamination at the source location, and
5. Restore recreational access to portions of Whatcom Falls Park and Whatcom Creek that can be safely accessed and utilized by the public.
By breaking down the draft plan into seven sub-plans that operate individually but concurrently, the plan is able to address each of the objectives individually.
A Long Range Restoration Plan is being developed to further the existing goals and will benefit from a broader and more comprehensive understanding of the restoration that will be gained during the implementation of the emergency phase.
The Seven Sub-Plans
Source Area Site Assessment
This draft plan assesses various options that will best determine the source of soil and water contamination, and how to best clean it up. In the last week of June, Department of Ecology representatives reported that three sources, or “plumes” of gasoline hydrocarbon contamination had been identified. The first plume is overland runoff from the rupture into Hanna Creek. The second plume follows the 16” water pipeline, which is presently closed and leads from the water treatment plant.
Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Mitigation
The total acreage of the burn is 30 acres, all of which drain into Whatcom Creek. Since burned watersheds are more prone to erosion, there is an immediate need to stabilize the streambanks and hillsides that have lost plant cover and protect them from further erosion, which causes increased sediment into the stream.
This draft plan incorporates a 9-Step Erosion Control Planning Process that was developed following the firestorm in Oakland in 1991. The draft plan sets forth numerous erosion and sediment control practices including erosion control blankets, straw mulch, and filtration devices. Using on-site evaluation and current data, the draft plan team has refined the number of erosion and sediment control practices from twelve down to just a few.
Following the explosion, the highest levels of gasoline hydrocarbons were found at York and James Streets west of I-5, where the fire did not reach. The levels decreased steadily during the next few days. A Bellingham Herald article of June 25th stated that the creek damage is extreme and that regardless of reparation efforts between now and the August salmon run, the Creek “will continue to weep gasoline.”
Encouragingly, June 30th marked the first zero detection recorded for gasoline hydrocarbons in the stream water, or “water column,” itself. However, stirring the sediments in many areas still produces a detectable sheen on the water surface as pockets of gasoline are disturbed.
This section of the draft plan relates directly to improving the damaged portion of Whatcom Creek channel so that it will better support salmon and other aquatic habitat. Since the salmon are returning this August, this portion of the draft plan is still full of “what if´s” because it is unknown whether or not the creek will be able to support spawning salmon in such a short amount of time.
Protection of Riparian Habitat
A healthy riparian ecosystem contains well-established plants and trees that buffer and protect water quality, provides a consistent source of organic material and nutrients to the aquatic environment, supports a diversity of terrestrial species and protects the public from flooding after hard rainfall. This sub-plan focuses on evaluating the damage to the trees and vegetation, and removing those trees that are hazardous or likely not to survive. Some trees deemed most hazardous have already been removed from the area.
Recreational Use People Planning
Though recreational use is the most predominant use by visitors to the park, this part of the emergency phase of the draft plan is a low priority. Once areas have been identified as safe, those areas will be re-opened to the public. Security provisions including barriers, fencing, security patrols and selective trail closures will prevent curious onlookers from damaging the very sensitive damaged areas.
The amount of data in need of management and organization is readily evident by simply thumbing through the draft plan, a large part of which is test results. Evidence from the burn zone, including fish carcasses, plant and water samples, has and still is being collected. During the first few weeks, the city provided technical support using a Geographic Information System, and city employees distributed information by hard copy as well as email. Hired personnel from Environmental Systems Research Institute are in the process of coordinating information management efforts. They will collect all data samples, develop presentations, support restoration activities, and work with another agency to create a resource library.
If you´ve made it through this whole analysis, it´s likely that you care enough to keep yourself apprised and informed about the restoration process. I feel fairly optimistic, and have been assured by many environmentalists and others that the best people are working on this project. However, it doesn´t make up for the loss and heartache we all feel. What would really make a difference, if you were interested, is volunteering to work on other creeks in town, such as Lincoln Creek and Fever Creek, which are in large part underground. Attend permitting hearings that relate to pipeline zoning, and use this experience to fuel (again, no pun intended) other efforts to become informed about what environmental risks are present in your own neighborhood. Above all, go outside and enjoy the many natural places of wonder that our city is blessed with. In a flash, they too could be gone.
Nicole Oliver was a freelance writer and former Whatcom Watch editor when this article was written. She is currently development director for the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department.