Opinion: The Lessons of Bellingham’s Olympic Pipeline Explosion

By Derek Moscato, Seattle Times, June 4, 2019.

Recent developments in Canada’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion saga remind us yet again of the inevitability of energy infrastructure debates in the West. By ruling that British Columbia’s government does not have the authority to restrict shipments of oil sands crude from neighboring Alberta, B.C.’s top appeals court has further advanced the petroleum pipeline ambitions of politicians in Alberta and Ottawa, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And just last Thursday, Alberta’s government launched a $1 million advertising campaign in downtown Vancouver to sway public opinion and pressure B.C.’s government to get on board with the pipeline program.

Just a short drive from the pipeline’s terminus in Burnaby, B.C., some residents of Whatcom County are keeping a close eye on the proposal’s momentum north of the border. That’s not only because of where the project fits into larger narratives about global climate change and the ecological feasibility of oil-sands extraction, but also growing concerns about increased oil-tanker traffic — and associated environmental risks — in the Salish Sea that such a pipeline would bring. Petroleum spills represent a worst-case scenario in this fragile cross-border ecosystem. Further inland, pipeline leaks large and small represent a significant threat to land, wildlife, and watersheds if and when they are not caught on time.

Such lessons have been well documented in Bellingham, where 20 years ago the Olympic Pipeline explosion wounded a community’s faith in energy infrastructure. On June 10, 1999, the 16-inch gasoline pipeline owned by Olympic Pipeline Company — spanning about 275 miles between Ferndale and Portland, and part of a larger regional pipeline network — was seriously ruptured. The accident released  more than 230,000 gallons of fuel into Whatcom Creek, a key urban waterway that connects Lake Whatcom to Bellingham Bay and provides urban green space, wildlife habitat and salmon spawning grounds.

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