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Whatcom Creek

Oil Spill | Bellingham, Washington | June 1999

What Happened?

On June 10, 1999, a rupture in the Olympic Pipeline discharged approximately 236,000 gallons of gasoline into a tributary of Whatcom Creek. Fumes from the gasoline ignited as it moved down Whatcom Creek, through a city park and residential neighborhoods.

What Were the Impacts?

The explosion and fire caused by the pipeline rupture killed three children. The incident also destroyed critical habitat for runs of Coho, Chum, and Chinook salmon, killed thousands of aquatic organisms, and severely impacted the aesthetics of a heavily used public park.

  • Over 100,000 fish, aquatic invertebrates (such as crayfish), and amphibians were killed.
  • Beavers, river otters, birds, small mammals, and reptiles were killed.
  • Approximately 26 acres of habitat were burned.
  • At least 16 acres of parkland were closed to public use for days to weeks.
  • Fisheries were closed in Whatcom Creek and its tributaries for 120 days.

What’s Happening Now?

A settlement finalized in 2004 provided over $3.5 million for restoration. In addition,13.5 acres of land were transferred to the City of Bellingham to expand the park.

Three restoration projects have been completed at Salmon Park, Cemetery Creek, and Red Tail Reach. These critical habitats for salmon and other injured resources have been restored:

  • Freshwater marsh and vegetation
  • High-water refuge for fish
  • Creek channel and pools 

In 2007 the Lummi Nation held a Healing Ceremony near the Red Tail Reach project to honor the three boys killed during the incident and celebrate the recovery of Whatcom Creek. A Memorial Pole and two carved cedar benches were unveiled during the ceremony.

As the last restoration project, the City of Bellingham installed a parking area, new trail, and trailhead on the newly acquired parcel added to Whatcom Falls Park as recreational enhancements to compensate for lost human use.

Large woody debris in restored tributary to Whatcom Creek provides habitat for salmon.
Large woody debris in restored tributary to Whatcom Creek provides habitat for salmon.

“The projects have been remarkably successful and in addition to the direct restoration benefits these projects provided to Whatcom Creek, they also focused our community’s support for stream restoration activities throughout Bellingham.” 

Clare Fogelsong, Natural Resources Policy Manager
Bellingham Public Works


Terill Hollweg
NOAA Restoration Center
Seattle, WA 98115
(206) 503-0671

Case Documents

Last updated September 5, 2023