Gas line linked to fatal Firestone home explosion stirs political storm

Author: Peter Marcus - May 3, 2017 - Updated: May 3, 2017


Evidence that a home explosion that killed two people in Firestone was caused by natural gas leaking from an old pipeline has kicked off a broader political conversation.

In many ways the conversation is not new. Concerns surrounding oil and gas activities have stirred for years. But drawing a direct connection to the tragedy in Firestone offers a new emphasis.

“When you have a heavy piece of machinery extracting explosive gas near where people live or work, you have a recipe for disaster that could cause people to get hurt,” said Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, who has led many anti-fracking discussions in the legislature.

“As more information has come to light, it has become clearer that these oil wells, pipes, and tanks are simply too dangerous to be in close proximity to homes, businesses, and schools. We need to take steps to ensure a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former geologist, who has been criticized for being too supportive of the industry, quickly took action on Tuesday, ordering a review of existing oil and gas operations. He also pointed out that there is no database of older existing gas lines and is looking into how to map that.

“We are hopeful this will be a unique situation,” Hickenlooper said at a Wednesday news conference. “But until we can be absolutely sure of that we’re going to go above and beyond.”

The order includes requiring producers to inspect and pressure test oil and gas flow lines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings; ensuring that any lines not in use are marked and capped; and guaranteeing that all abandoned lines are cut below the surface and sealed.

Inspections of existing lines will occur within 30 days and tested within 60 days. Lines that have been either abandoned or are not in use must be inspected within 30 days.

“Anyone who has worked around a disaster of this level, I can’t imaging the anguish…” Hickenlooper said. “I don’t think that they’re going to try to cut corners on something like this.”

The incident puts the oil and gas industry in a tough predicament, as ballot initiatives are considered to crackdown on the industry, and lawmakers mull late legislation to address the problem with just days left in the session.

Ideas include examining how to regulate residential development near operations and addressing flowlines. It’s unclear whether measures will develop in the final days of the session. The governor doubts measures could pass with a week left.

Already this session, lawmakers heard legislation that would have required oil and gas operations to be located at least 1,000 feet from school property lines. The legislation died on a Republican party-line vote.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association said in a statement that an “unusual set of events led to unrefined gases leaching into the property.”

“On behalf of Colorado’s oil and gas industry, the safety of our families, friends, and communities is our highest priority and will remain so as we work to prevent tragedies like this from happening again,” said Dan Haley, president and chief executive of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

“COGA supports the state’s call to inspect flowlines and ensure the safety of all Coloradans. We are committed to partnering with the COGCC, our operators, home builders, and Colorado communities to get it right. In the weeks and months that follow, we will endeavor to enhance flowline and pipeline procedures and remain committed to improving Colorado oil and gas production.”

Anadarko Petroleum Corporation was the operator of the well associated with the incident, though it is unclear who was responsible for the unused pipeline. The Houston-based company said in a statement that it would work with state regulators on additional steps. The company last week shut down more than 3,000 vertical wells in northeast Colorado.

“The safety of our employees and the people who live and work in the communities in which we operate is our No. 1 priority … We will continue to take all necessary and appropriate steps in that regard, and will continue to cooperate fully with all ongoing investigations to ensure we fully understand the basis for the fire district’s conclusions and that no stone is left unturned prior to any final determinations,” Anadarko said in a statement.

A well sits 178 feet from the home in Firestone, in which two wen were killed in a devastating explosion.

The bodies of brothers-in-law Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, both 42, were discovered in the basement one day after the explosion. Martinez’s wife, Erin, was seriously injured.

The underground line had been cut about 10 feet from the house, state regulators said. Gas seeped through the ground and into the basement, where it exploded on April 17.

Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, said the incident highlights a “wake-up call that oil and gas exploration is a dangerous, heavy industrial activity that must be kept away from homes and schools.”

“For years, communities across the state have raised concerns about the perils of siting homes and oil and gas facilities near each other, but these cries for change have fallen upon deaf ears. We have been left with empty promises from the oil and gas industry and tragedies such as this,” Maysmith said.

He called on state regulators to not allow any oil and gas activity unless it is proven to be safe.

“Our elected officials must act with great urgency to strengthen the rules and laws governing oil and gas drilling. This means taking any action necessary to put the burden of proof for showing that drilling is safe onto the industry, not onto concerned community members.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.


  • Robert Chase

    May 3, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    “Gas line linked to fatal Firestone home explosion stirs political storm”

    — after all the BS about how Colorado is so sensible in regulating and how drilling poses no risks to people living close by, it should!

  • Scott Weiser

    May 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Of course the fact that such events are exceedingly rare and the procedures for capping inactive wells are strict doesn’t register with the anti-fracking Luddites. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times this has happened in Colorado in the last 50 years.

    It’s a tragedy to be sure, but in no way does it support the notion that gas and oil extraction are too dangerous to be permitted.

    Besides, in this case which came first, the gas well or the house? It was the gas well, and the developer who built the house likely cut the line while digging the basement for the house and then failed to test the line to see if it was leaking gas before proceeding, which would make the developer just as liable for the accident as the well owner who failed to properly shut off and cap the line.

    Mistakes happen, and this was a tragic confluence of errors. But that doesn’t mean that oil and gas extraction cannot be done with reasonable safety so long as the existing rigid procedures for ensuring safety are followed. This might militate for, as the Governor just ordered, review of all well shut-downs and verification that proper procedures have been followed, but that is merely safety regulation not banning the lawful extraction of privately owned oil and gas that the surface landowners did not buy when they purchased their lots.

    • Robert Chase

      May 3, 2017 at 9:23 pm

      Very few are advancing the proposition that “gas and oil extraction are too dangerous to be permitted”; the problem is that those proposing reasonable setbacks which would have prevented this explosion were overborne by cheerleaders for the oil and gas industry — which doesn’t even pay the State a fair severance tax on the oil and gas they take from Colorado. As for your speculation that the homebuilder might have responsible, you just lay bare how much of an apologist you are — are you paid to be a shill or are you just another crazed, right-wing volunteer? Sure you don’t want to blame the explosion on hash oil? Isn’t that a much more satisfying explanation?

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