Pipeline blast sentences bring closure, send message
Just a week after the fourth anniversary of the June 10, 1999, Olympic Pipe Line explosion that claimed three young lives, came the big moment in federal district court, the moment of retribution. Justice for the man accused of knowing about the weaknesses in the line and neglecting to fix them. Justice for the man accused of violating laws requiring pipeline operators be adequately trained. Justice for the employee who opened the valve that allowed an additional 75,000 gallons of gasoline to flood into Whatcom and Hannah creeks. The initial rupture allowed about 273,000 gallons to pour into the creek where the gas then ignited, sending a fireball down Whatcom Creek toward downtown Bellingham.
Frank Hopf, the former vice president and manager of the pipeline company, will serve six months in prison and 200 hours of community service for a felony violation of pipeline employee training laws.
Ron Brentson, the company's former supervisor of products movement, will serve 30 days in prison, 30 days of home detention on an electronic monitoring device and 150 hours of community service, also for the felony violation of training laws.
Kevin Dyvig, the operator at the time of the explosion, was sentenced to one year of probation and 100 hours of community service for a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act.
For four years, the parents of victims Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, and Liam Wood, 18, have been asking how this could have happened. For four years, they have led an exhausting battle for pipeline reform. They have fought the right fight, always with sadness, often with anger, sometimes with thoughts of punishing the Olympic employees and the company. But when it came time for sentencing, it was outspoken Frank King, Wade's father, who asked the judge not to send the men to prison.
"We're trying to change the industry, not the individuals," King said. "These individuals have already been changed for the rest of their lives."
This sentencing phase, which includes fining two companies $36 million in civil and criminal penalties, will bring some sense of closure and send a message to the pipeline industry. But more important than punishment is exactly what Frank King said - change. Quite often in the corporate world, one can lead to the other.
While King speaking on the defendants' behalf was admirable, sending them to prison for their actions sends that stronger message that will force the other pipeline companies to think long and hard about the value of safety and training upgrades. For too long now, fines have simply become a part of doing business for pipeline companies. This case, the first prosecution under the federal Hazardous Materials Safety Act, needs to set the standard that business as usual will not be tolerated and will result in something more than the typical financial penalties.
In the years after the blast, the grass-roots pipeline safety organization SAFE Bellingham has become recognized nationally as pushing the lines on these key issues. Washington's congressional delegation from former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton to Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen have worked to build bipartisan understanding about the danger inherent in a system with a lack of rules and accountability. Federal laws have been passed to improve pipeline safety. Inspectors have been added. State Rep. Kelli Linville, D- Bellingham, spearheaded the creation of the state's Office of Pipeline Safety to help fill in the enormous holes in the federal system and give the state more of a voice.
The victims' families have come together to create a plan to use the money from the fines to create a Pipeline Safety Trust that would provide independent expertise and assistance to communities raising pipeline safety questions and act as a balance to industry experts when legislators seek input on new laws and policies.
What has been accomplished goes far beyond a wish for revenge. The positive changes that have been made are a true testament to the love and strength of parents Frank and Mary King, Katherine Dalen and Marlene Robinson and their support networks.
RESources Executive Director Carl Weimer, who stepped up to help create Safe Bellingham, has been a driving force in organizing, researching and pushing for people on Capitol Hill to listen.
The sentencing phase in this tragedy means the end of one painful part of this story. But thanks to the passion and vision of local people, so much more lies ahead in the push to strengthen safety laws so that this won't happen again.
Copyright Bellingham Herald