June 10th marks a day of both great tragedy and great celebration in my small city of Bellingham, WA. That’s because 17 years ago on that date, a pipeline carrying gasoline from a refinery north of the city and that runs through our Whatcom Falls Park, in the middle of the city, exploded.
The fireball that erupted when the Olympic Pipeline ruptured sent flames down the park’s stream burning everything in its path, including three boys, an 18-year-old who had just graduated from high school and who had gone to the park to fish and two 10-year-olds who were playing downstream in the water.
I was just about to leave with my own 10-year-old at the time, for his baseball game in a school ball field located not far away from the park. As I was standing by my car, I suddenly saw a giant plume of thick, black smoke curl up in the sky and over the general area where we were headed. Although I had no idea what was the cause, I recognized it as some kind of oil-related fire because I had seen one exactly like it when the pipeline ruptured and exploded near my home in Los Angeles as the Northridge earthquake in 1996, just three years previous.
I, like hundreds of other residents, instantly turned on our radio in hopes of learning what was happening. And I told my son that we were in no way going to the baseball field. The news was spotty and unconfirmed but one local caller to the station knew exactly what it was: a pipeline explosion in the park.
We learned later that was precisely what had occurred. A faulty valve at a pumping station located 30 miles south failed to open. Workers, thinking it was yet again the faulty valve, overrode the controls to close the valve, causing the pressure in the pipeline to build and burst in the park.
My oldest son, Matthew, then 14, says he “remembers looking up to see the plume like it was yesterday. I’ll take that image to the grave.” As will many who were living here at the time. It was a day that awakened the residents of Bellingham to the potential dangers and disaster, both for the environment and in human life, that unmaintained and unrestricted pipelines carrying gasoline, trains transporting noxious coal and tanker trains loaded with flammable oil can have on a community. We learned that lesson long before the accidents that occurred in West Virginia, Quebec and most recently in nearby Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge just this month.
I have no doubt that it’s one reason why companies wanting to place a shipping terminal just 20 miles north of here in order to send coal to China encountered such strong opposition from local and state residents. Building the terminal would have meant that as many as 25 trains a day would have rolled from Wyoming, across the farms and ranches of Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington, up the coast of Western Washington, through Bellingham along its waterfront and past neighborhoods with houses standing less than 100 feet from the rails. It would have meant that the fishing grounds, where the Lummi Nation people have harvested salmon for hundreds of years, would have been jeopardized and likely threatened all the sea life dwelling in that deep water area of the Salish Sea.
Five years ago, environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke at rally at the Village Green to kick off the campaign against the coal trains. At that time, he told the crowd of approximately 1,000 that “Bellingham, by sheer accident of geography, is the front line in the global battle against the use of coal.”
This past Friday, June 10, an estimated 1,000 people gathered again on the Village Green. But this time, they were there to celebrate the recent decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to uphold the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights and deny the permits required to build the coal terminal as well as the announcement by the state’s Department of Natural Resources that it had denied the land lease also required.
Some warn that the project is still alive until the local permit application at the county level is denied but those at the Village Green on Saturday were jubilant with these latest turn of events and what they hope will put an end to the coal terminal.
And those of us, who, like my son and myself, remember the June 10 of 17 years prior, also paid our respects for the event and lives lost that sparked the debate here and derailed the coal train terminal.