WASHINGTON -- Congress on Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of a terrifying pipeline leak and fireball that killed three young people in Bellingham, Wash., by creating a National Pipeline Safety Day -- a day Sen. Patty Murray said was needed as a reminder that those who died were "innocent victims of a horrific accident that could have been prevented."
More than 2.3 million miles of pipeline carrying hazardous liquids crisscross the nation, running mostly unnoticed through cities, towns and neighborhoods. In the six years before the Bellingham explosion, nearly 150 people were killed and 580 injured as a result of leaks, fires, explosions and other pipeline-related incidents.
Following the Bellingham accident, Murray, D-Wash., shepherded a bill through Congress that cracked down on pipeline operators, tightened safety standards, increased fines, hired more inspectors and required better training. Since the bill was passed six years ago, the Office of Pipeline Safety, which is part of the Transportation Department, reports 94 deaths and 330 serious injuries from pipelines.
In Washington state, pipeline accidents are down 40 percent since Murray's bill passed, the senator's staff said.
The numbers of inspectors and accident investigators at the Office of Pipeline Safety has doubled, the average penalty has increased eightfold and the number of corrective orders that have been issued has tripled since the law took effect.
"This is a day we must never forget," Murray said during a speech on the Senate floor. "We cannot slip back to where we were."
The Bellingham pipeline runs through the city and near Whatcom Falls Park. About 3:30 p.m. on June 10, 1999, the pipeline ruptured, releasing 250,000 gallons of gasoline that ignited, sending a fireball more than one mile down the creek. The smoke plume from the fire rose 20,000 feet into the sky.
Two 10-year-old boys playing along the creek were burned over 90 percent of their bodies and died the next day. An 18-year-old, who had graduated from high school five days earlier, was overcome by the fumes while fly fishing, lost consciousness and drowned.
Murray said law enforcement officials weren't even aware the pipeline ran near the creek.
"These pipelines are invisible to most people and therefore out of sight and out of mind," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose district includes Bellingham. "Previous generations may ask the question, "Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?' In my district, people ask the question, 'Where were you when the pipeline exploded?'"
The resolution establishing National Pipeline Safety Day was approved unanimously in both the Senate and the House without debate.
Both the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Oil Pipelines said the industry has worked hard to improve its safety record since the Bellingham accident. The number of hazardous liquid pipeline releases have fallen by 60 percent, they said.
"Recognizing National Pipeline Safety Day is a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in Bellingham and a reminder of the critical importance of safe pipeline operations to the nation and pipeline companies," the groups said in a joint statement.
Despite the improvements, Murray said even more needs to be done. She included an additional $13 million in pipeline safety funding in the current fiscal year's spending plan, along with $35 million in grants to the states for pipeline safety.
"It turned out what happened in Bellingham that day was not an isolated occurrence," Murray said. "In fact, it wasn't even rare."