Safeguards shut down to find out if Bellingham park still polluted

Safeguards shut down to find out if Bellingham park still polluted
Crews rappel down hillside to collect water samples at Whatcom Falls Park. (Photo courtesy Dept. of Ecology).

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - It's the moment of truth for Bellingham's Whatcom Falls Park as crews take samples to determine if the groundwater remains contaminated 14 years after a massive gasoline leak and explosion.

"We want to see if any gasoline remains in the soil, and if it migrates into the stream," Louise Bardy, a Washington State Department of Ecology cleanup program supervisor, said in a statement to the media. "This will be a good way to find out if any still remains."

On Wednesday, the Department of Ecology gave Olympic Pipe Line permission to shut off the water filtration system that was put in place 14 years ago to help catch and treat contaminated groundwater before it reached Whatcom Creek.

Ecology experts say doing this will help provide a more accurate picture of how clean and safe the park's groundwater currently is.

In 1999, nearly 237,000 gallons of gas leaked from the Olympic pipeline, badly burning the park and contaminating two creeks that flow through the area.

Spill response equipment was on hand during Wednesday's field tests in case crews noticed any kind of sheen in the stream. Ecologists also said the water treatment system could easily be turned back on.

In the past five years the Department of Ecology reports that three million gallons of water filtered through the treatment system have met state cleanup standards.

With the filtration system shutoff crews will spend the next three weeks monitoring 10 different wells looking for any contamination left from the explosion.

Depending on what the tests show more cleanup work may be needed.

The ultimate goal is to return the park to its natural state.