Mining the toxic motherlode

Can Olympic Pipe Line's disaster be cleaned up?

You'd think Thor Cutler would have seen just about everything runaway petrochemicals can do to landscapes and the people and other creatures that live in them. As an "Emergency Response On-Scene Coordinator" for the Environmental Protection Agency in New Jersey, Cutler wrestled with some of the nastiest of toxic mishaps, from paint factory spills on the Elizabeth and Paramus rivers to cadmium and PCB leaks on the Hudson and the notorious Ciba-Geigy fouling of the Toms River. He figures he's evaluated 200 spilled, dumped, and otherwise damaged sites. He remembers standing "knee-deep in product" (toxic-cleanup people talk like that) after the Exxon Valdez fouled Prince William Sound.

Now, standing in lush salal and salmonberries above Whatcom Creek, Cutler surveys the charred canyon below and mutters, "I was there when the police found the third body. I never saw anything like this before. I hope I never see anything like it again."

"It" occurred on June 10, 1999, when up to 277,000 gallons of gasoline gushed from a ruptured 16-inch pipeline, sending fireballs roaring a mile and a half down Hannah and Whatcom Creeks and smoke billowing hundreds of feet above this placid Bellingham neighborhood. And that wasn't the last of the strange spectacles and toxic impacts.

Thanks to the Olympic Pipe Line blast, mellow Bellingham has joined Cleveland and Houston on the elite roster of cities forever to be known for their burning rivers. It's writing a new chapter in the science of fuel spills. And for Cutler and scores of other scientists and engineers, government and pipeline-company officials, and pick-and-shovel laborers, Whatcom Creek is posing a particularly urgent and nasty cleanup challenge.

That's because the gas that ravaged Whatcom Creek didn't behave as gasoline, which is lighter than water, is supposed to; it didn't just float and burn and evaporate away. Some of it somehow got into the sediments below the water, killing whatever dwelt there and promising to poison whatever might try to. This is a big problem, because short, urban Whatcom Creek is a surprisingly rich salmon stream, host to coho, chum, and sea-run cutthroat later in the season and a plucky incipient run of autumn chinook—the hallowed king salmon, whose wild runs were recently listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Salmon eggs and fry are particularly sensitive to petrochemicals, even in minute quantities. And the kings are due back in a month.

How did the gasoline get into the sediments? "We'll probably never know for sure," says Dick Logan, manager of the Washington Department of Ecology's natural-resource damage assessments. "Perhaps there was so much gasoline it displaced all the water in the creek," says Logan.

"It may have been an artifact of the fire," says Tony Palagyi, an environmental engineer with the Olympic Pipe Line Company who's also overseeing the operation. "The fact that the water temperature was raised so high increases solubility." Perhaps the gas dissolved in the heated water, or the water simply boiled away.

The more pressing question is, how the hell do you get it out? Up on top, where the pipeline ruptured and an estimated 10,000 gallons of gas still saturate the soil, the cleanup warriors have begun their attack in classic frontal fashion. They've already hauled off some 800 cubic yards of contaminated dirt for incineration in Tacoma: "I imagine we'll remove that much again," says Cutler. Once they've managed to excavate the toxic motherlode, what Cutler calls the spill's "heart," they'll move down to "the arteries": the gasoline-laced groundwater downhill from the spill. There they'll dig extraction wells that will pump as long as the water stays hot—perhaps three years. For the gassed-up dry dirt above, they'll install a "vapor extraction system"—a giant vacuum cleaner with a web of filtered tubes stuck in the ground, to suck up vapors for the next year or so.

Around 70 people work on the site at a time, down from hundreds in the first frantic days. They chat in the language of nuclear waste, about how "hot" this patch or that channel is today. Hot, indeed: A month after the blast, the fumes are so strong my head reels and my breath rasps after a few minutes. Those actually in the pits wear respirators, but up above people are working and talking—presumably hour after hour, day after day—without any. Respirators grow old after a while. An ambulance stands by, but Olympic Pipe Line's Ramon Barnes says it hasn't been needed. Early on, workers' blood pressure and other vital signs were frequently checked, but, says Barnes, "We never had any problems."

Viewed from above, the canyon looks autumnal in the late afternoon sun. The trees' upper branches glow gold and russet; they're only lightly scorched. Below, every log and trunk is charred and the ground is as bare as a battlefield. Even the creek appears stained black, though that's probably just a trick of the light.

The devastation is especially poignant considering that the biologically rich creek was just reviving after long neglect. Last year, state Ecology Department biologist Bruce Barber inventoried the creek's invertebrate life and found it "very high, including species you'd expect to find in a mountain stream, not an urban creek." Two years ago the City of Bellingham installed a ladder so fish could get over a sewer line that had blocked them just about where last month's fire ended. Chinook strays, apparently from a hatchery at the creek's mouth, promptly found their way up and started spawning. It's hard to imagine them returning now, even though all parties agree that they should. Some even say readiness can be made before the spawners return next month.

But how do you purify a creek bed? By a strategy called "shake and flush," though "shake and slake" would be more alliterative. At night, cleanup managers let the creek run to flush out contaminants. But during the day they shut off its flow (which they're able to do because it has just a single source, nearby Lake Whatcom) and dig up sediments and turn over the rocks to "shake" the gasoline out. At first, says Cutler, just walking on the creek bed would release bursts of fumes. But crews of laborers and two trackhoes have attacked the creek bed more systematically, working up and down, turning the contaminated sediments and gravel again and again. This is no weekend's spadework: Logan says that half the creek's three-mile length, plus spots along the rest down to Bellingham Bay, got gassed up.

Worse yet, the trackhoes tread too roughly to use on large sections and can't get into the canyon. So the cavalry has been called in: a bizarre and powerful machine called a Spyder, ordinarily used on delicate logging operations. This giant pseudoarachnid has just four legs, but they're wheeled, jointed, and retractable, enabling it to clamber through streams and over delicate landscapes without trashing them. A human operator steers atop the spider's carapace, and a power shovel in the middle does the heavy lifting.

Such deployment doesn't come cheap; Olympic Pipe Line says it's already spent $4.6 million on the cleanup, with no end in sight. The company has an obvious interest in doing right by Whatcom Creek after doing so much harm; if ever a firm could use an inoculation of greenwash, it's Olympic. When the spill happened, Olympic was on its way to getting a state permit for a new east-west pipeline. Now it's fighting to save this one. Elsewhere, investigators are weighing criminal charges against Olympic, and pipeline officials are pleading the Fifth Amendment. But here at ground zero, state, federal, and city officials can't stop praising the cooperation they're getting from Olympic, and from each other, in this hydra-headed project. Ecology's Logan says it's the best response he's seen in 10 years and 150 spills: "The company's doing yeoman work drafting plans and assessments, and once those are done, the next day they're out there implementing them."

"Our goal is to leave [Whatcom Creek] better than it was before the spill," says Olympic's Palagyi. Biologist Gary Mauseth, a consultant for Olympic, says the cleanup "gives us the chance" to turn "a glorified ditch" into a salmon-friendly stream. In the course of shaking and flushing, he wants to add pools, riffles, and spawning gravel.

But when you view the blackened gulch, where not a single overhanging branch shades the water from the fish-killing sun, such hopes seem, well, ambitious. Likewise the talk of restoring the creek by next month. Already backup plans are being discussed: to catch the returning kings and take them to another stream, or a hatchery, to spawn, and hope to receive next year's spawners. As they wend their way across the ocean to their appointment with destiny, the salmon have no inkling of all the trouble being taken on their behalf—no more than the thousands of drivers wending their way on I-5, just downstream from the burn, stop to consider what it takes to keep the gasoline always ready at their pumps.

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