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SAFE Bellingham Strives to Improve Pipeline Safety

May 2003

Organization Profile

SAFE Bellingham Strives to Improve Pipeline Safety

by Margi Polland Fox

Margi Polland Fox has written numerous articles and essays for regional and national publications. In her current business, Fox Profiles, she writes bios, booklets, brochures, and annual reports for nonprofits.

On that unforgettable day, June 10, 1999, gasoline flooded Whatcom Creek from a ruptured pipeline. The ensuing explosion killed the two young boys, Stephen Tsiorvas, Wade King, and eighteen-year-old Liam Wood. Since then their families have worked in conjunction with SAFE Bellingham, an organization created in response to the disaster. Together they’ve aimed at improving pipeline safety—an agonizingly slow process.

Carl Weimer, director of SAFE Bellingham, has attributed most of the progress to those affected by the tragedy. “It’s been a very, very difficult time for all the families,” he said, “but they’ve been willing to speak out. Their integrity is the thing that’s made the change.”

SAFE Bellingham formed a few days after the disaster struck. Frank James, board member of RE Sources and head of the Whatcom Medical Society called a meeting with a number of people from the community, including Carl Weimer, executive director of RE Sources (profiled in the March Whatcom Watch, front page). They discussed what to do in response.

The group developed three goals: Make sure the people harmed received reparations; ensure the restoration of Whatcom Creek; and help avoid a reoccurrence of the catastrophe, here and elsewhere. It made the most sense for RE Sources to take on the responsibility since they were already dealing with fuel issues and had an infrastructure in place.

As it turned out, others handled the first two objectives. Those directly impacted by the explosion used legal channels for personal damages. The city of Bellingham, the Department of Ecology, and the offending company—Olympic—dealt with the Whatcom Creek restoration and cleanup. So SAFE Bellingham has focused almost entirely on pipeline safety issues, here and at the national level.

Initially, the RE Sources board gave $10,000 to SAFE Bellingham. Since then, funding has continued from RE Sources and from private donations. While the board has overseen SAFE Bellingham, a steering committee has directed the activities. Members of the steering committee have included Marlene Robinson and Bruce Brabec, parents of Liam Wood, Lois Epstein, a national pipeline expert, Frank James, and a half-dozen others.

Dealing With Trauma

From the beginning, SAFE Bellingham has helped the community deal with the trauma. Right away, Olympic hired three public relations firms to help get the pipeline back running immediately.

In response, SAFE Bellingham produced a technical report on the pipeline involved in the accident, written by Greg Winter, one of the steering committee members and a community development consultant who’d previously researched oil spills in Alaska. The pipeline type, he discovered, was fraught with many problems and safety risks.

Both the media and members of Congress picked up the report, and SAFE Bellingham did a number of press releases on the troubles. Weimer crashed a public relations session designed to promote Olympic.

He pointed out that while they were speaking about getting the pipeline running again, the entire length was made out of a type of pipe known to split under pressure. After the concerns were taken seriously, the pipeline was pressure tested. A large split in the line occurred right above Kulshan Middle School. That portion of the pipe was then replaced.

The public exposure put the political and business communities on notice that members of SAFE Bellingham were keeping watch on pipeline safety. They focused on the federal level, the source of control. Cities and state governments have received little power over the pipelines running through their jurisdictions.

SAFE Bellingham got involved with all the U.S. representatives from this area. Both Democrats and Republicans worked together to push for greater pipeline safety.

But no one has pushed themselves as hard as the families, who have ceaselessly worked for pipeline safety legislation since they lost their sons. It’s come at a cost, Weimer explained. “The families put themselves through the trauma every time they testify.”

Pursuing Legislation

In October 1999, Weimer testified before Congress when the House Transportation Subcommittee introduced legislation for pipeline safety. Nothing happened. The Senate tried but couldn’t get the House to go along with a bill.

During 2000, while still working closely with Congressional staff, Weimer and others testified at a Senate committee in Bellingham. They have spoken on other occasions, sometimes chafing under the restrictions imposed by the legislators. The game-playing approach of those in power has also disturbed them.

In addition to working for new laws, SAFE Bellingham has followed other avenues. With only three months lead time in April 2000, the organization put on the first National Pipeline Safety Reform Conference. They worked with two other groups, Cascade Columbia Alliance and The National Pipeline Reform Coalition.

Held in Washington, D.C., the convention occurred at the same time as a pipeline spill damaged the nearby Potomac River. The two days of speakers featured activists discussing problems they’d encountered, and 100 people from 16 different states attended. Participants included representatives of local government and emergency responders from affected areas.

The gathering generated a national push for pipeline safety, kept alive by SAFE Bellingham via the Internet. They began the National Safe Pipelines’ Listserve, which has provided an exchange between impacted communities and experts (and a place where industry monitors the activities of pipeline safety proponents).

The national exposure has resulted in requests for help from around the world. Weimer has flown to Michigan to speak with a group dealing with a spill and has been in touch with communities in Virginia tackling drinking water contamination from leaks and with people in New Mexico where a pipeline explosion killed a group of campers.

Passing a Pipeline Safety Bill

All the hard work has made an impact. This fall Congress finally passed a pipeline safety bill. The legislation has strengthened pipeline safety in several ways:

•It increases the amount of the fines that the Office of Pipeline Safety can levy against offending companies.

•It requires a plan from every company maintaining pipelines.

•It calls for inspections in sensitive areas.

•It mandates operator training.

Proponents of the legislation had hoped for a bill with more defined requirements. This law has allowed for quite a bit of wiggle room. According to Weimer, the families were disappointed; they’d hoped for laws that would do more to protect others from the kind of tragedy they’ve faced. However Weimer said that others, such as pipeline expert, Lois Epstein, view even the weak legislation as a major accomplishment considering the odds.

Another area of improvement, thanks in part to the efforts of SAFE Bellingham and the willingness of the families to speak out with such clarity and concern, has come from the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS). The agency has undergone what Weimer described as a sea change since the tragedy in Whatcom Falls Park, moving faster than either Congress or industry to provide stronger protective measures.

The new head of OPS has strengthened pipeline safety by establishing internal rules on liquid pipelines, pipelines in sensitive areas and communications. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee OPS won’t again weaken oversight, especially with another change in leadership.

Proposing The Pipeline Safety Trust

Finally, SAFE Bellingham has joined with the families in proposing a watchdog organization, funded by $8 million of the $20 million fine levied against the pipeline companies in the 1999 accident. The money would go to an endowment and the interest would operate The King, Tsiorvas, Wood Pipeline Safety Trust (PST).

The Board of Directors, appointed by the families, will oversee staff, develop a strategic plan and hire technical experts to independently review pipeline safety issues. Since the plan is still under consideration, citizen support of The Pipeline Safety Trust is crucial (see sidebar).

Weimer is enthusiastic about the Pipeline Safety Trust. RE Sources would be happy to have another organization, especially one with funding and expertise, take over the role as pipeline safety advocate. RE Sources handles many projects and activities and would welcome the opportunity to hand off the responsibility to those focused only on pipeline issues. Weimer has spent countless hours on SAFE Bellingham—that in addition to his many responsibilities as executive director of RE Sources.

Nevertheless, he credits the parents of Stephen Tsiorvas, Wade King, and Liam Wood for improvements in pipeline safety. “The attention the families received has been very uncomfortable,” Weimer said, “but they’ve been willing to put up with it for the greater good. They’ve given the whole nation a great deal.” §

Accomplishments of SAFE Bellingham

•Helped get pipeline safety legislation enacted through lobbying efforts and giving direct testimony.

•Developed a national advocacy network.

•Provided assistance to other communities dealing with pipeline problems.

•Put on the first National Pipeline Safety Reform Conference.

•Began and hosted the National Safe Pipelines’ Listserve.

•Developed the proposal for The King, Tsiorvas, Wood Pipeline Safety Trust.

Current Developments

•SAFE Bellingham recently helped with the local filming of a pipeline show for the Discovery Channel. The show will air either this summer or next fall.

•The Pipeline Safety Trust has been receiving high level letters of support, but the actual court settlement date has been postponed to June.

Contact Information

For information on supporting the proposal or on other activities of SAFE Bellingham, contact:

SAFE Bellingham

1155 N. State Street, Suite 623

Phone: (360) 733-8307

Next Month — Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association

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