Explosion Law Firm Reflects on 25th Anniversary of Historic Gas Fire

Historic Bellingham Explosion Spurs Pipeline Safety Reforms

In honor of the lives lost in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion, June should be designated National Pipeline Safety Month to strengthen safety regulations and help prevent future pipeline accidents. On June 10, 1999, an underground Olympic pipeline carrying natural gas ruptured and horrifically caught fire in the town of Bellingham, Washington. The fumes and flames killed three young people frolicking outdoors on one of the first days of summer vacation. Two 10-year-old boys were burned over 90 percent of their bodies. A teenager drowned.

On the 25th anniversary of the Bellingham explosion, the gas line attorneys at Pritzker Hageman reflected on the tragedy. Managing Partner Eric Hageman represents fire and explosion survivors. Hageman says the nightmare in Bellingham provided an important turning point in the fight for better pipeline safety. The tragic fireball that exploded along Whatcom Creek led to significant state and national reforms that included stronger pipeline safety laws. Operators are now beholden to tougher inspection and maintenance requirements. Enforcement measures were stepped up and the crucial “Call Before You Dig’’ program was born.

“Gas pipelines continue to rupture and explode, causing unimaginable pain and suffering,’’ Hageman said. “It’s crucial for the U.S. to remember the Bellingham tragedy and strive for greater vigilance and prevention.’’

Across the United States, there’s still an average of one pipeline explosion every 12 days. Also on average, one American is killed and another four are injured every 29 days from pipeline incidents. In all, there are more than 2 million miles of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in America, operated by more than 3,000 companies.

Flames and Tears

On that beautiful spring afternoon in Bellingham in 1999, citizens learned the hard way about the existence of a 16-inch gasoline pipeline hidden underground in the middle of their community. Due to a series of errors and shortcomings that led to the explosion, the community was overcome with fear, grief, anger, sadness and $45 million of dollars of economic destruction.

At 3:30 in the afternoon, 10-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King were playing on the banks of Whatcom Creek. Unbeknownst to them, a broken pipeline had released a quarter of a million gallons of gasoline into the water. When it ignited, a fireball raced downstream, destroying everything in its path for more than a mile. The boys were scorched and died the next day.

Elsewhere on the creek, Liam Wood was fly-fishing just five days after graduating from high school. The fireball released a plume of black smoke that rose 20,000 feet in the air. Liam was overcome by fumes, lost consciousness and drowned. Eight other people suffered injuries.

As city officials, explosion law firms, police, pipeline regulators and members of Congress would later realize, the pipeline rupture could have been prevented and should have been prevented. For starters, it was hardly known in the community that the pipeline existed.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that an excavator accidentally hit the underground pipeline in 1994, causing a weakness that later ruptured under high pressure. The agency found that the Olympic Pipe Line Company did not adequately inspect the excavator’s work.

The NTSB investigation also found that the control system used to operate the pipeline became unresponsive to commands by Olympic controllers. If the system was functional, controllers could have prevented the pressure increase that ultimately ruptured the pipeline, the NTSB reported. Database revisions to the control system were performed shortly before the accident happened. Had the revisions been performed and thoroughly tested on an off-line system instead of the primary on-line system, “errors resulting from those revisions may have been identified and repaired before they could affect the operation of the pipeline,’’ the NTSB concluded.

Eight days after the wrongful deaths, the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety found that the pipeline’s continued operation without corrective measures “would be hazardous to life, property, and the environment,” and issued an order restricting Olympic’s operations and outlining specific actions the company must complete before returning its pipeline to full operation.

$75 Million Pipeline Explosion Lawsuit Settlement

Families of the victims filed a pipeline explosion lawsuit against Olympic and its co-defendants for negligence and wrongful death. In 2003, explosion lawyers reached a settlement for $75 million.

Moreover, Congress listened to pleadings for a safety crackdown by passing significant new pipeline regulations. There was the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 and the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act of 2006. Additionally, the federal Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, with support from a diverse group of stakeholders, instituted a variety of important new rules and pipeline safety initiatives such as the Common Ground Alliance, pipeline emergency training with the National Association of State Fire Marshals, and the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance.

Several members of Congress from Washington state sought to memorialize the Bellingham tragedy by pushing for the designation of a pipeline safety day or a pipeline safety month. The push didn’t work. That’s partly because April already was recognized as National Safe Digging Month. It’s one of many ongoing promotions to raise awareness about calling 811 before anyone breaks ground on a digging project to avoid accidentally hitting underground gas lines.

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Major Gas Explosion Litigation

The explosion lawyers at Pritzker Hageman have recovered tens of millions of dollars in pipeline explosion lawsuits. Here’s five major U.S. cases where lawyers made a dynamic difference for burn survivors and next of kin. In two of these cases, the investigations and legal proceedings were spearheaded by Pritzker Hageman’s team of gas line attorneys.

On August 2, 2017, at approximately 10:22 a.m., a central building at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis was destroyed by a natural gas pipeline explosion. Ruth Berg, a longtime school employee and a beloved member of the Minnehaha Academy family, was one of two people killed in the blast. The other person was school employee John Carlson, 82. Several other people were hospitalized.

At the time of the explosion, a work crew was in the process of removing an inside gas meter and relocating it to the outside of the building for CenterPoint Energy. The gas line explosion lawsuit alleged that, before disconnecting the service line from the old meter, shut-off valves upstream from the meter were not inspected or safely closed off. According to the lawsuit, natural gas immediately flowed into the confined pit area where the pipes were disconnected.  The workers ran to save themselves and did not alert people inside the building of the need to evacuate, the lawsuit alleged. The explosion was extremely preventable and CenterPoint Energy, along with the mechanical contractor that disconnected the supply line, was held accountable. In 2018, our lawyers reached a monetary settlement on behalf of Ms. Berg’s family.

When a weld cracked open in April 2016 on a corroded, 30-inch natural gas pipeline in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the uncontained fuel caught fire and exploded 200 yards behind a house in Salem Township. The 26-year-old man inside the dwelling escaped, but as he ran away from the fireball he was horribly burned by the searing heat. He nearly died. Third- and fourth-degree burns covered three-quarters of his body and he underwent a series of more than 20 surgeries to save his life.

When explosion lawyers from Pritzker Hageman confronted the pipeline company on the client’s behalf, they achieved a burn settlement amount that ensured him and his young family a lifetime of financial security. “We lost everything… but the amount of help we received from our attorneys at the Pritzker Hageman law firm was incredible,’’ the client said later when interviewed about the experience.

Investigations revealed that the pipeline failed from aggressive corrosion at a pipeline seam. The gas company, Spectra Energy (now Enbridge Gas, which acquired Spectra in 2017), openly admitted to knowing of the anomaly before the explosion. A company official apologized to the community at a public meeting. Another Spectra executive told investors that “special item costs’’ related to corrective actions would range from $75 million to $100 million.

On September 9, 2010, at about 6:11 p.m., a 30-inch-diameter segment of an intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline known as Line 132, owned and operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., ruptured in a residential area in San Bruno, California. Eight people were killed, many were injured and many more were evacuated. The blast left a crater about 72 feet long by 26 feet wide. 

The NTSB ruled the probable cause to be the utility’s inadequate quality assurance and quality control, which allowed the installation of a substandard and poorly welded pipe section with a visible seam weld flaw. Investigators also blamed the company’s inadequate pipeline integrity management program.

Three years after the explosion, the gas company agreed to pay out $565 million in legal settlements and other burn claim amounts stemming from the explosion. The lawsuit settlements were reached with 347 people.  Another 152 people reached separate settlements.

The disaster led to significant regulatory changes to address problems identified in the lawsuits. For one, the California Public Utilities Commission implemented stricter rules and the re-evaluation of pressure standards for pipelines already in the ground. Moreover, PG&E itself had to undertake a major safety overhaul.

Another historic rupture of a gas pipeline killed 12 people in August 2000 near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The NTSB said the gas line explosion was so powerful that it created a deadly blast zone of at least 675 feet in all directions. The incident killed 12 members of an extended family who were camping nearby under a steel bridge. The fire burned for nearly an hour and the causes of death were extensive thermal burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, and smoke inhalation.  One of the safety issues cited by NTSB was pipeline corrosion and an inadequate control system to keep the 30-inch pipeline safe. The agency also criticized the federal Office of Pipeline Safety for not making accurate pre-accident assessments of El Paso Natural Gas Company’s internal corrosion control program. Heavy corrosion inside the pipeline is what led to the pipeline’s failure, the NTSB said.

A young man who was horribly burned in a gas pipeline explosion and who suffered a brain injury was awarded $20 million by a jury in Los Angeles Superior Court in June of 2014. Less than two years later, the award was upheld by an appeals court.

The burn victim’s lawyers provided details to the court of his “catastrophic” injuries, which required him to be hospitalized for skin grafting and to receive painful nursing treatments long after the explosion. According to court records, he was the only person hurt in the blast, which occurred in a garage that had been converted into a rented apartment for him.

The space contained an uncapped gas line and a Southern California Gas Co. employee opened a natural gas valve that activated the line. The room in San Gabriel filled up with 300 cubic feet of natural gas and exploded in flames when the renter awoke from sleeping and lit a cigarette.

The jury found that the gas company was liable for about $18.1 million of the $20 million damage award. The remainder was assessed against the landlords. SoCalGas admitted liability before trial and the jury’s only task was to assess damages. At the time, the jury award was believed to be the largest personal injury verdict ever against SoCalGas.