Pipeline Companies Settle Suits Over Bellingham Explosion

OLYMPIA, Washington, December 12, 2002 (ENS) - Two pipeline companies will pay a total of $36 million in fines and millions more on safety improvements in a settlement involving a 1999 explosion that killed three young men.

Three employees found culpable in the gasoline spill and pipeline explosion could also face fines or jail time for their roles in the fatal accident.

smoke

The gasoline pipeline explosion near Bellingham, Washington sparked a fireball that killed three young men. (Photo courtesy Olympic Pipeline)
The criminal portion of the case, finalized Wednesday, resulted in the largest penalty ever handed down for a pipeline explosion. The civil suit, expected to be finalized next week, will require the Olympic Pipe Line Company and Equilon Pipeline Company to pay some $76 million to strengthen their safety and inspection programs.

In 1999, Equilon was the majority owner of Olympic, which owned and operated the pipeline outside Bellingham, Washington. A break in the pipeline sent 236,000 gallons of gasoline into the Whatcom and Hannah creeks in June 1999.

Eighteen year old Liam Wood was fly fishing in the creek, and drowned after being overcome by the gasoline fumes. Two 10 year old boys, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, were playing on the bank of the creek when the gasoline caught fire, burning both boys fatally.

In October, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the explosion resulted from an excavation project completed in 1994, five years before the pipe ruptured, and from inadequate pipe inspections.

creek before

Whatcom Creek was a healthy ecosystem before the Bellingham pipeline explosion. (Two photos courtesy the City of Bellingham)
Eight months ago, the families of Tsiorvas and King reached a settlement with Olympic, Equilon and others worth $75 million. A separate settlement was reached with Woods' family for an undisclosed amount.

Under the plea agreements announced Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Olympic pled guilty to a felony violation of the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and a misdemeanor count of the Clean Water Act. The company will pay $6 million in penalties and remain under corporate probation for five years.

Olympic president Lawrence Peck said the company believes "this is a fair and just settlement and that it brings us all closer to moving beyond this terrible tragedy."

Equilon - now owned by the Shell Pipeline Company - pled no contest to a felony violation of the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and no contest to a misdemeanor count of the Clean Water Act. Equilon will pay $15 million in fines and remain under corporate probation for five years.

In a joint statement, Equilon's managers said they hope that "resolution of the criminal case will help continue the healing process for the families and communities that were so deeply affected by this tragedy."

creek after

After the explosion, vegetation on the creek banks was scorched and the creek ran gray with soot.
The three former Olympic employees found guilty in the case will be sentenced on April 11, 2003. Frank Hopf, a former Olympic vice president and manager pled guilty to failing to "establish and conduct a continuing training program," a felony violation of the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act, and could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Ron Brentson, a former Olympic supervisor of product movements pled guilty to the same violation as Hopf, and faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Kevin Dyvig, a former operations controller who was working in Olympic's control center at the time of the accident, pled guilty to one misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act, and faces up to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

In the civil case to be settled next week, Olympic has agreed to pay $5 million and spend an estimated $15 million for new safety programs along its 400 mile pipeline. Equilon will pay $10 million and spend about $60 million on safety programs.

The civil suit settlement is contingent on finalizing the Washington Department of Ecology's civil penalties issued against Olympic and Equilon. Washington and the Bellingham area are expected to receive $20 million or more from the settlement for pipeline safety improvements and environmental projects.

"Most of the money will be invested in environmental projects in Bellingham, where this disaster occurred," said Tom Fitzsimmons, director of the Department of Ecology.