Colorado: Federal report on fatal Firestone explosion blames gas leak, government approval to build homes without pipeline maps

FIRESTONE, CO – APRIL 27: Crews continue to investigate a fatal house explosion on April 27, 2017 in Firestone, Colorado. Anadarko Petroleum plans to shut down 3,000 wells in northeastern Colorado after the fatal explosion. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

By JOHN AGUILAR | | The Denver Post PUBLISHED: October 29, 2019 at 10:44 am | UPDATED: October 30, 2019 at 9:42 am

The federal investigation into the 2017 explosion that killed two people and destroyed a home in Firestone determined the likely cause was a natural gas leak through a pipeline that had been severed during construction of the home two years earlier.

The newly released report from the National Transportation Safety Board also blames the government of Firestone for allowing development on former oil and gas fields without the full knowledge of where pipelines remained buried underground.

“Contributing to the accident was the approval by local authorities to allow occupied structures to be built on land adjacent to or previously part of oil and gas production fields without complete documentation from the operator, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, on the location and status of its gathering system pipelines,” the investigators wrote.

The April 17, 2017, blast killed Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin and left Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife and Irwin’s sister, badly burned. Mark Martinez and Irwin were replacing a hot water heater in the Weld County home’s basement at the time.

Fire investigators later found a 1-inch diameter black plastic pipeline running from an Anadarko well near the house that had been cut when a tank battery was moved before the Oak Meadows subdivision was built. That pipeline leaked the gas from a point 6 feet from the southeast corner of the home at 6312 Twilight Ave. Investigators said they found the gas valve at the Anadarko well in the “on” position.

The report states that a previous owner of the well, Patina Oil and Gas Corp., had recorded the flowlines — pipes that connect wells to surrounding equipment — as being properly abandoned in 1999. But state regulatory records, the report said, “showed this to be incorrect.”

Anadarko acquired the well in 2013 and two years later temporarily shut it in. “However, the well was not plugged and no pipelines were abandoned,” according to the NTSB.

In the wake of the explosion, Colorado leaders promised they would do all they could to prevent a similar tragedy, including pledging a comprehensive public map of pipelines in the state. Thirty months later, as The Denver Post reported Sunday, that still hasn’t happened.

The NTSB completed its report Oct. 18. It did not include any recommendations or directives for homebuilders, local government officials or oil and gas operators relating to the tragedy.

“Know what you’re building on”

On Tuesday, Erin Martinez harshly criticized the NTSB’s report for “its brevity and lack of any recommendations whatsoever to protect public safety and prevent further tragedy.”

“After all this time, it’s shocking to me that the NTSB gives neither me nor the public anything that we didn’t know prior to the investigation,” she wrote in a statement. “Whoever authored this document could have released it a short time after my home exploded. It’s difficult to understand why it took two-and-a-half years to write seven pages that provide no concrete recommendations to prevent another tragedy.”

Martinez said she would turn her attention to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s rewriting of its rules on energy extraction in the state. And she said she would “continue to serve the memory of both Mark and Joey in creating a safer Colorado and ensure that no other family will have to live through what my family experienced.”

Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said cities and towns can only make decisions on the prospective location of new homes based on information they have or that which is available to them. Given that a previous oil and gas company had listed the flowlines near the Martinez home as properly abandoned, Firestone officials didn’t have reason to suspect there might be a problem.

“I don’t think the municipality could compel anything out of the operator that wasn’t available from the COGCC,” he said. “Information is key here — there wasn’t complete documentation.”

A.J. Krieger, Firestone’s town manager, said late Tuesday that the fast-growing town 30 miles north of Denver is in the middle of updating its land-use development code, “which will include enhanced requirements for regulating oil and gas activity.”

“These more stringent regulations will not just focus on siting and pre-development activities, but also on the post-production life cycle and inspections,” he said.

Krieger said Firestone, which is located in the southwest corner of Weld County, has recently “moved toward requiring removal of abandoned subgrade infrastructure, including the types of lines cited in the NTSB report.”

Martinez, in an interview with The Post on Tuesday, thinks local governments should be more proactive in assuring the safety of a site before permitting homes to be built there.

“Before you move forward with development plans, you should know what you’re building on,” she said. “We can’t hide behind the fact that ‘we were told this.’ ”

That means towns should hire inspectors who can ascertain the underground safety of a prospective neighborhood development before allowing the earthmovers to come in, she said. And she questioned why the state setback for new wells from occupied buildings that oil and gas companies must comply with don’t apply to developers who build near existing wells.

She noted that her home was built less than 200 feet from the well that leaked gas into her basement — yet state rules prohibit energy companies from drilling new wells within 500 feet of an existing home.

“It should be the same setback applied to all of it,” Martinez said.

Mapping flowlines

A spokeswoman for Occidental Petroleum Corp., which acquired Anadarko in August, said the company takes the NTSB’s findings “very seriously.”

“We are mindful of the events of April 17, 2017, every day, and our thoughts continue to be with the families, friends and communities affected by this tragedy,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Brice. “… as part of our commitment to safety, we continually review our processes and procedures.”

After the explosion, Brice said Anadarko shut-in and inspected more than 3,000 vertical wells in and around Weld County, permanently disconnected and used cement to plug approximately 3,600 one-inch return lines, and provided more than 750 free methane detectors to area residents.

Colorado officials have set a deadline of Thursday for oil and gas operators to provide start-point and end-point coordinates — but not full maps — for flowlines. The COGCC has said flowlines span at least 6,522 miles in the state, based on data submitted before Thursday’s deadline.

State officials estimated that a broad unregulated class of pipelines called “gathering lines” — which collect oil and gas from initial storage sites and carry it toward interstate transmission lines — spans tens of thousands of miles. They couldn’t be more precise because they lack location information from oil and gas companies.

On Tuesday, COGCC spokeswoman Megan Castle said as part of the state’s flowline rulemakings, it is proposing the creation of a map of flowlines for the public while at the same time addressing public safety concerns. The agency also will place emphasis on removing old flowlines rather than presuming they are safely abandoned in place, she said.

Published by pscoalition

Founder, Pipeline Safety Coalition

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