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To learn more about the Bellingham, Washington pipeline explosion, see:

The SAFE Bellingham Project <> , a pipeline safety reform organization (includes a photograph of the explosion)

The Bellingham Herald <> newspaper, which includes a special section on the explosion

Western Washington University <> , featuring a powerful account of the tragedy 9 June 2000

Blow Off Steam!

Pipelines Fuel Outrage
By Annette Smith
Special to

One year ago today, my neighbors and I attended a meeting held by a company from New York wanting to use our property to run a natural gas pipeline that would fuel two proposed power plants. We asked if the pipelines were safe, and they assured us that they would build the safest pipelines. "You may have heard about other pipeline companies, but we're not like them," they assured us. "Pipeline leaks and explosions are rare, you hardly ever hear about them."

The next day, June 10, 1999, a gasoline pipeline exploded in Bellingham, Washington, spilling more than 200,000 gallons of gasoline.

Three boys were killed. Whatcom Creek, which runs through the center of the town, ignited into a fireball that reminded Vietnam veterans of napalm. Nobody knew the source of the enormous black mushroom cloud. "There was this sense in everyone that this was something evil," said Carl Weimer, who subsequently became the director of SAFE Bellingham, an organization devoted to making sure that what happened in Bellingham never happens again, anywhere.

More than gasoline was ignited in Bellingham that day. Residents of Bellingham, citizens of the state of Washington, and especially the parents of the children who died have become educated and informed about the pipeline industry at an intolerable price. What they have learned has fueled their outrage at the lack of Federal oversight and regulation to ensure pipeline safety.

On April 8, I traveled to Washington, DC to attend the first National Pipeline Safety Reform Conference, which was organized by people from Washington state who had spent the months since the explosion talking to others dealing with pipeline issues all over the country. From coast to coast, we converged on Washington, D.C. to share our strength of experiences and take action.

The day before, April 7, an oil pipeline ruptured in Prince George's County, Maryland, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil into the Patuxent River.

More than 300 birds, otters, muskrats and snakes were found dead in the spill area. Beaches and shorelines were closed for recreation and the harvesting of fish and crabs. Cleanup experts said they lost control because of the weather and a chaotic cleanup response.

For the next two days, people from 16 states heard more than 30 presentations:
A dairy farmer from Ohio said he first learned about a proposed gas pipeline that would involve taking his land, by eminent domain if necessary, when he saw strange men in his field putting up survey tape. The period for public comment had already passed.

A college professor from New Jersey described dealing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "The FERC hearings hammered home to everyone that no one was representing our interests in this decision-making process."

A sheep farmer from Oregon described his harrowing experience with the construction of a high-pressure gas pipeline through the fields within ten feet of his home: a deep trench, full of mud and water, one hundred degree temperatures, pipeline workers struggling to push the ends of the contorted pipe together in order to weld it.

Mayors described the difficulties they have locating pipelines in their communities. No, there are no maps.

Fire Marshalls, Safety Experts, Pipeline Safety Inspectors, and Engineers detailed the failures of the Office of Pipeline Safety to initiate rulemaking mandated by Congress, to keep accurate databases, or to assess and collect fines.

They described an industry that has no requirements to replace aging pipelines, to conduct regular testing and inspection of pipelines, or to share test results with communities. Pipeline companies do not have to replace pipeline that testing shows to be defective, and there are no requirements that individuals responsible for operating and maintaining pipelines be tested and certified as qualified.

Do not forget Wade King, Stephen Tsiorvas, and Liam Wood. Liam, 18, was fishing in Whatcom Creek when, asphyxiated by gasoline fumes, he fell into the creek and drowned.

Wade and Stephen, both 10, were playing by the creek when they struck a butane lighter that ignited the gasoline, probably saving their community from a much worse fate. After the explosion, they walked out of the park. Orange in color, with skin dripping off their fingertips, they were burned over 90% of their bodies but were still able to talk. Wade saw his parents and said, "Mommy, don't look."

The next morning, he was dead.

"I cannot allow Wade to be buried along with the pipeline and for his life not to have meant something," says his father, Frank King.

The day after the conference, Frank King met with Senator John McCain. As a result, McCain drafted a bill to overhaul the Office of Pipeline Safety. The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to vote the bill out of committee in the next two weeks.

When we returned home, we all received a mailing from the American Petroleum Institute inviting us to participate in rulemaking to create a pipeline integrity standard. The Office of Pipeline Safety put the industry in charge of setting the standards.

We are outraged.

Two days ago, June 7, a gasoline pipeline burst in Blackman Township, Michigan, spilling 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of gasoline.

"Fish were actually jumping out of the creek to die," said one resident. "I've never seen anything like that."

Annette Smith is the founder and Executive Director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment <> , Danby, Vermont. She was interviewed by in our 12 May 2000 cover story.