Pipeline victims' families want fines to go toward safety trust
By Ericka Pizzillo

The Bellingham Herald
21 January 2003

Olympic Pipe Line Co. victims' families said they want a portion of the civil and criminal fines against the company to fund an independent board that would monitor pipeline safety throughout the country.

The King, Tsiorvas, Wood Pipeline Safety Trust would be named for the three youths who died as a result of the rupture and explosion in Whatcom Falls Park on June 10, 1999: Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, and Liam Wood, 18.

The families and Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson hope to convince the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle and the state Department of Ecology to approve funding an $8 million trust, using civil and criminal fines collected from Olympic Pipe Line Co. and Equilon Pipeline Co. Shell now owns Equilon.

The organization would be funded off the yearly interest on the endowment, approximately $480,000.

Educating public

The organization would educate citizens and make recommendations to government about pipeline safety. It would also hire expert consultants to advise members and the public.

"We want to make information easily available and give citizens and community a voice in the pipeline process," said Carl Weimer, the director of SAFE Bellingham, a pipeline safety group created after the rupture.

For example, new federal regulations require pipeline companies to take extra precautions near environmentally sensitive areas, such as streams and wetlands. The companies are now identifying those locations.

"Who better to make that decision than the community?" said Greg Winter, a SAFE Bellingham steering committee member.

The families know pipelines are likely the safest way to transport fuel, under the right safety regulations and practices, said Breeann Beggs, an attorney for the family of Liam Wood.

"This is not an anti-pipeline group," he said. "This (organization) is so communities and pipelines can work together to make sure it's done in the safest way."

The victims' families would choose the first board members and the organization would have nonprofit status.

The families recently met with officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office and were told approval of the trust would be dependent on community support, Beggs said.

"It would be great to have a flood of letters from people saying 'yes' to this and 'we don't want this to happen again,' " Beggs said.

Alaskan model

The trust is partially modeled on the organizations of elected officials and citizens created in Alaska, Maine and California after the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the Alaskan coast, Winter said.

Those organizations make recommendations for improvements to oil transportation, planning and cleanup.

Katherine Dalen, whose son Stephen Tsiorvas died from burns he suffered during the pipeline explosion, said she's become the contact for neighbors who find pipeline companies digging in their back yard.

While she's gained expertise in pipelines, she's not an expert. Instead, she would like an organization that the public can call for questions.

And Weimer said SAFE Bellingham, which doesn't have a stable source of funding, receives calls from other communities two or three times a week for information on pipeline safety.

Liam Wood's mother, Marlene Robinson, said she never wanted to become a pipeline safety advocate but still moved forward, learning about pipelines and testifying before Congress - despite her grief.

"I hate every moment of it. But that's not why I'm doing it," Robinson said. "I just think that if 10 years (earlier) someone had done what we're doing, it might not have happened."

City proposals

In addition to setting aside money for the trust, Asmundson will present a wish list to the City Council at its Monday meeting suggesting how some of the money from the civil and criminal fines should be spent. If approved by the council, the wish list will be forwarded to both the U.S. Attorney's Office and Ecology officials.

The mayor's proposed projects are:

  • $8 million for The King, Tsiorvas, Wood Pipeline Safety Trust.
  • $2 million for upgrades to the countywide emergency communications system.
  • $7.5 million for nature enhancements to Whatcom Creek.
  • $5 million for a recreation complex, including ballfields, on city-owned property on Squalicum Parkway. The property was formerly the location of Pacific Concrete Industries.

The civil fines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ecology department are for environmental damage to Whatcom Creek.

The criminal penalties are a result of Olympic's guilty plea to a felony and two misdemeanor charges related to the rupture and Shell Pipeline's no contest plea to one felony and one misdemeanor charge.

Company representatives made the pleas on Dec. 11 in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Three employees also pleaded guilty to charges in the case. They will be sentenced April 11.

Reach Ericka Pizzillo at ericka.pizzillo@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2266.

Copyright The Bellingham Herald
(Original Story no longer available online)