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Originally published Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at 3:54 PM

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Guest columnist

Public much safer 10 years after Olympic Pipeline explosion

Ten years after the tragic Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham, the public is much safer, thanks to Washington's leadership on pipeline safety laws and changes in federal laws. Jeffrey Goltz, chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, reflects on the progress made since the explosion killed three young people June 10, 1999.

Special to The Times

TEN years have passed since the tragic Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham, but to some it still feels like yesterday.

On June 10, 1999, a cloud of black smoke rose 30,000 feet above Whatcom Creek, shadowing the surrounding neighborhoods. The explosion, caused by a ruptured pipeline, shook the community, and the resulting fireball burned a swath through the heart of Bellingham. The tragic deaths of three innocent youths exposed the vulnerability of our pipeline infrastructure and the immediate need for greater safety improvements.

I grew up in Bellingham and, as a child, played around Whatcom Creek. My father, who served Whatcom County as a state legislator for more than a decade, witnessed the devastation. People throughout the state shared the community's distress. This could have happened anywhere.

The Bellingham incident was a catalyst for many important state and national safety advances that have been implemented during the past decade. In 2000, the Washington Legislature enacted the Washington Pipeline Safety Act, resulting in our state's participation in interstate pipeline inspections and investigations.

Since then, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission has conducted hundreds of construction-crew inspections, more than 400 standard pipeline inspections, and required the correction of more than 1,000 state and federal code violations.

In 2002, Congress passed the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act, increasing penalty fines, improving pipeline testing timelines, and providing whistle-blower protection. The 2006 federal Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act strengthened the commitment to underground-utility safety.

In collaboration with local governments, pipeline operators and land developers, the commission has developed guidelines for planning and review of land-use activities around major pipelines. The commission's Pipeline Safety Program has developed detailed underground pipeline maps for emergency responders, improved public access to pipeline inspection records and enforcement actions, and established a newunderground-pipeline damage-tracking system to improve safety statewide.

There are more than 24,000 miles of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in Washington, operated by 26 companies. We depend on these pipelines to deliver vital resources and services. They deliver the energy we need to heat our homes, fuel our cars, cook our food and operate our businesses. Without proper oversight, these pipelines are vulnerable to damage from even minimal human impact.

Utility-safety programs such as 811 Call Before You Dig, a free underground-utility-locating service, help our residents and builders safely navigate the potential hazards that lie below. Washington law requires anyone digging into the ground to call 811 at least two business days before they dig. Any scratch or dent to a pipeline, left without informing authorities, could become a safety hazard. Last year, to help prevent damage, the commission began investigating customer complaints about late, inaccurate or incomplete requests to mark their underground utilities.

Are we safer today? Yes. Though we have made vast improvements, this work is never done and we must continue to be vigilant. Gov Chris Gregoire signed a proclamation declaring June 10 "Pipeline Safety Day" to honor the memories of Liam Wood, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, by ensuring the tragedy is not forgotten, and to remind people that greater awareness of our underground infrastructure can improve public safety and prevent future tragedies.

Today the ecosystem of Whatcom Creek has been rebuilt and restored, but the memory of that day lives on in every safety precaution we take and inspection we conduct. The city of Bellingham will host a number of events to commemorate the tragedy, including a memorial walk along Whatcom Creek. A day of healing and remembrance, this important milestone in our history reminds us of our loss, and of our responsibilities looking forward.

Jeffrey Goltz is the chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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