Why the Bellingham story must continue to be told

It’s the 15-year anniversary of the Bellingham pipeline tragedy, and I just want to think about something else. I don’t want to talk about what happened. And I certainly don’t want to have to try to make sense of it, or explain how something good has come from it. Three boys are still dead and for some reason the crying starts easier now than it did 15 years ago. Do we have to go through this all again? Can’t we just move on? What’s the point?

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For 15 years now it has been my job with the Pipeline Safety Trust to relive this tragedy on a regular basis for others who didn’t live through it but who need to hear it. I’ve told it to the U.S. Congress many times. I have stood in fancy hotel ballrooms from Calgary to Houston and told it to the executives who run the pipeline companies. I have told the story to ranchers and farmers in grange halls and community centers across the Great Plains, and to concerned citizens in school gymnasiums from Oregon to Michigan. When a pipeline problem occurs somewhere I tell it to the local reporters. No matter the crowd, people always listen intently, often uncomfortably, trying to understand how such a terrible thing could happen. Aren’t pipelines safe? How safe is safe?

 

Pipelines really are quite safe compared to so many other activities. Over a half million miles of large transmission pipelines in this country cheaply and efficiently move the huge quantities of fuels that so many of us have come to demand. Over the past 15 years they have only killed or injured someone on average once every 10 days. We can only wish that our highways and schools could be so safe.

 

On the other hand, we still have those three dead boys here in Bellingham. The following year an entire extended family of 12 were killed by a pipeline while camping in New Mexico. Five workers were killed in California in 2004 while working near a pipeline. An elderly woman and her granddaughter were killed in their front yard in Mississippi in 2007 when a propane pipeline failed. A 47-year-old man driving down an interstate highway in Louisiana was killed when a natural gas pipeline under the highway exploded. Eight dead in San Bruno, a million gallons of oil in a river in Michigan, 3 dead in Philadelphia, 5 dead in Allentown, 8 dead in Harlem – the tragedies just roll on. How safe is safe?

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In many instances the dead are mentioned, but the news stories rapidly move to the effects on the price of fuel farther down the pipeline if the pipeline is not back in service quickly. The message between the lines seems to say, “sorry you folks are dead, but we’ve got cars to drive, businesses to run, and homes to heat. Accidents happen. America runs on oil and natural gas.” Then some local reporter finds the Pipeline Safety Trust’s website, or receives an email from us out of the blue, and the story begins to change. How safe is safe?

 

If greater safety can continue to come from the Bellingham tragedy perhaps it will come from our unique ability to hold onto our story, and the stories of those other tragedies, and make sure they are not forgotten or ignored. Great progress has been made toward that end.

 

When new pipelines are being proposed those nearby now ask – but what about Bellingham? When Congress talks about pipeline safety budgets or regulations they now ask – but what about Bellingham? Even the pipeline industry seems to understand that the story of Bellingham needs to be revisited over and over if greater safety is to be realized. How safe is safe?

 

The story of Bellingham has been told in many places and that story has changed things. Laws have been enacted, more information has become available, pipeline safety has increased, safety cultures have improved, and other tragedies have likely been avoided.

 

I know that much has been accomplished by the retelling, over and over of the Bellingham story. I hope that everyone in Bellingham and around the country will join us today to remember the story again, and to show others that while we are tired of the story it is still important.

 

I certainly do realize that the retelling of the story is important, but sometimes, especially around June 10th, it just doesn’t seem like quite enough. Three boys are still dead and for some reason the crying starts easier now than it did 15 years ago.

 

Memorial Cairns