(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the Bellingham pipeline explosion. This tragedy claimed the lives of three young Washingtonians and prompted Congressional pipeline safety efforts that Senator Murray led.

Murray’s speech focused on the tragic toll of the June 10, 1999 pipeline rupture and explosion in Whatcom Falls Park, and the need to continue to be vigilant on pipeline safety efforts.

In 2002 Senator Murray successfully passed landmark pipeline safety legislation  that has successfully reduced pipeline accidents.

Senator Murray also introduced a resolution with Senator Cantwell designating today, June 10, 2009, as “National Pipeline Safety Day.”

Senator Murray delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor today:

“Mr. President, I rise today to remind my colleagues of a promise our government has made to the American people.

“It is an unspoken trust that certain things in our lives and communities are taken care of - that we don’t have to think much about – because we trust our government to keep us safe. 

“Mr. President I think most Americans turn on the tap each day and expect the water they drink to be safe – they probably don’t think much about it. We expect that if there is an emergency, we will be able to pick up the phone and dial 911 and someone will answer and send help.

“Mr. President, that’s exactly what the residents of Bellingham, Washington used to think about oil and gas pipelines…if they thought of them at all.   But, all of our senses of safety and innocence were shattered ten years ago today when tragedy struck for three families and an entire community came together to: grieve, learn and eventually stand up and say: Never Again.

“Mr. President, June 10th, 1999, was a quiet, sunny day in Bellingham, Washington.   And for many students, it was the last day of school for the year. That should have been how it remained - as a day when kids played and celebrated the on-coming of summer. But unfortunately, due to a series of mistakes and neglectful actions, it is now remembered as a day of fear and loss that the community still grieves.

“Ten years ago today, at around 3:30 in the afternoon on the West Coast, a gasoline pipeline that ran through Bellingham and near Whatcom Falls Park ruptured – releasing more than a quarter of a million gallons of gasoline into Whatcom Creek.  That gas ignited – sending a huge fireball racing down the creek – destroying everything in its path for more than a mile.  It created a plume of smoke which rose more than twenty-thousand feet in the air. 

“The photo behind me was taken just moments after the explosion. Mr. President, that dramatic explosion took the lives of three young people.

“Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King were playing on the banks of the creek when a fireball raced across the water and set everything ablaze.  Both badly injured, Stephen threw Wade into the creek and jumped in himself to soothe their burns.  The boys – who were burned over 90 percent of their bodies – died the next day.  They were both just ten years old.

“That same afternoon, 18 year old Liam Wood who had just graduated from high school five days earlier was fly-fishing in the creek.  Liam was overcome by fumes and lost consciousness and drowned.

“Stephen, Wade and Liam, were innocent victims of a horrible accident.  But it was an accident that could and should have been prevented.

“Mr. President, pipeline networks stretch across America.  They run under our homes and near our schools and offices.   Most people don’t even know they are there.

“In fact, former Bellingham Police Chief Don Pierce, who was on the scene that day in 1999, was recently quoted saying:

‘As I was standing there, none of it made any sense, because creeks don’t catch on fire.  I don’t think I knew there was a gas pipeline that ran under there.’

“Mr. President, nationwide, the Office of Pipeline safety oversees more than 2.3 million miles of pipeline that transport hazardous liquids and natural gas under communities across America.   They perform a vital service – bringing oil and essential products to our homes and businesses.

“Prior to the accident, I had rarely heard about them – and like most Americans – I assumed they were safe. At first, I thought the Bellingham explosion was a fluke -- something that hardly ever happened.   But then I started to investigate the issue, and I was astonished by what I learned.

“It turned out that what happened in Bellingham, Washington that day was not an isolated occurrence. In fact, it wasn’t even rare.

“According to the Office of Pipeline Safety – from 1986 until the time of the accident in 1999, there had been more than: 5,500 incidents resulting in 310 deaths and 1,500 injuries. And not only had these accidents destroyed families, they had destroyed the environment.

“At that time, 6 million gallons of hazardous liquid was being released by these incidents each year.  That's like having an oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster every two years. And the environmental damage was estimated to cost almost $1 billion.

“Mr. President, in addition to the terrible loss sustained by three Bellingham families, this explosion had caused massive environmental damage.  In fact, I was scheduled to be at that exact site just a few weeks later to dedicate a newly-restored salmon spawning ground.  

“When I saw the damage a short time after the explosion, I was shocked.  The blast had destroyed all the plant and animal life in the creek and a once lush and diverse habitat had been turned to ashes. Again, our community was not unique.

“At that time, on average, our nation was suffering one pipeline accident every single day. Well, Mr. President, while Bellingham may not have been unique in our tragedy, we were one-of-a-kind in our response.

“Today, ten years after the unthinkable happened, the story of the Bellingham explosion is also the story of how a community came together to tackle a nationwide problem and protect other Americans from coast to coast.

“As we learned together about the problems with inspection and oversight of our national pipeline system, the community channeled grief into action. Through research, I found out that there were inadequate laws, insufficient oversight, too few inspections and not enough trained inspectors as well as a lack of awareness about pipeline dangers.

“I learned that one of the most important public safety offices – the Office of Pipeline Safety - was underfunded and neglected.

“I asked the Inspector General at the Department of Transportation to investigate the Office of Pipeline safety and provide recommendations for how to make the system work better. And I got to work writing a bill to improve pipeline safety in America.

“But, Mr. President it was going to be a long hard fight to convince Congress that this was something we had to do something about. And the people of Bellingham stood with me every step of the way. 

The parents of the young victims came to Washington, D.C. to testify. As did:Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson and Carl Weimer, the Head of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

“And that Trust came into being thanks to the efforts of the families and a group called SAFE Bellingham who had organized to fight for better pipeline oversight and accident prevention measures.

“So together, with them and the great support of colleagues like Senator John McCain,  former Senators Slade Gorton and Fritz Hollings, Senator Cantwell, and Congress members Jack Metcalf and Rick Larsen

“Congress passed and President Bush signed my legislation in 2002 to give the Office of Pipeline Safety the resources and muscle it needed to keep Americans safe.  The law has improved the training of pipeline personnel,  raised penalties for safety violations,  invested in new technology to improve pipeline safety,  improved inspection practices and,  importantly, expanded the authority of states to conduct their own safety activities.

“Children in every corner of America are safer today because the people of Bellingham stood up and said we won’t let this happen again. But the work isn’t done.

“While our law has greatly reduced the number of pipeline tragedies, there are still many accidents every year.

“And that’s why I am proud to introduce a Senate Resolution today designating June 10th as National Pipeline Safety Day.    I am introducing this resolution to remind our communities to remain vigilant and to encourage state and local governments to continue to promote pipeline safety and  to create greater public awareness of the pipelines that run under and through our communities.

“For me, this ten year anniversary is a reminder of a day of terrible pain that we must never forget.   But it’s also a reminder that we can’t just assume someone else is taking care of things.   We can’t slip back to where we were before.   We have to stay vigilant and continue to work to improve the safety of our pipeline systems.

“That is the best way we can continue to celebrate and honor Steven, Wade and Liam.”