Top Colorado regulator uncertain ‘what happens next’ after fatal Firestone explosion linked to oil and gas operations

Author: John Tomasic - May 2, 2017 - Updated: May 3, 2017

COGCC Director Matt Lepore at his second press conference in six days, May 2, 2017. (Screen shot from live feed.)
Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore at his second press conference in six days, May 2, 2017. (Screen shot from live feed.)

Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told reporters Tuesday afternoon that it was a “confluence of events” tied to an uncapped line leading to a gas well that led to the fatal home explosion in Firestone April 17. He said that state well inspections and regulations would not necessarily prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future and that authorities, oil and gas operators and no-doubt lawmakers and concerned citizens will engage in “a continuing conversation about what happens next” to reassure concerned residents.

“The COGCC inspects about 40,000 wells a year,” Lepore said, “I think 49,000 last year… but there is no comprehensive map of [well] flow lines. This flow line was cut relatively close to the home and the fact that it was cut that close and left uncapped matters more than the fact that the home was less than 200 feet from the well.”

Lepore explained that the state doesn’t test the integrity of lines where pressure measures less than 15 pounds per square inch. He said there are a great deal of well lines of all sorts across the state — and across Weld County in particular where the home explosion occurred — and he seemed unsure how the state and operators might go about making sure all abandoned well lines were not leaking in dangerous ways — into foundation drains, for example, as fire inspectors just hours before had reported was the case at the home in Firestone.

“What happened was highly unusual… It was horrible and horrifying,” Lepore said. “And we will seek to minimize the possibility of this happening again — and I think [oil and gas] operators will be hyper-vigilant about this going forward.”

Ted Poszywak, chief of the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District, reported in a press conference Tuesday that his inspection team had found that a gas line cut by oil and gas drillers and then abandoned and left uncapped allowed unrefined and therefore odorless natural gas to fill the basement where two men were likely working on a water heater. At some point in their work, the gas ignited, blowing the house to rubble, sending flames into the sky, killing the men — Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin — and critically injuring Mark’s wife Erin.

A 20-year-old oil and gas well sits 170 feet from what’s left of the home.* Anadarko Petroleum, one of the most prolific drillers in Colorado, bought the well from Noble energy in 2014 and shut it down for all of 2016, before reopening it at the end of January this year. Anadarko announced last week that it had shut down 3,000 similar vertical wells in the weeks since the explosion, a move on a scale unmatched in Colorado history, Lepore said in a meeting with news media last week.

Poszywak said it was possible that gas had been leaking into the Firestone home from the time the well was reopened.

“There are questions about timing and sequence,” Lepore said. “Anadarko could say all this took place before 2014 when it took over the well. They’re not saying this,” he was quick to add. “But they might.”

The news that the explosion in the gas patch community was tied to drilling came as little surprise. Many Colorado residents for some time have been anticipating just such a tragedy.

In the years of the hydraulic fracturing boom — which has coincided with expanding home development in Northern Front Range commuter communities — drillers work increasingly close to homes, schools, hospitals and retirement homes. Rules and regulations mostly formulated to boost the extraction industry in an earlier era of open fields and simpler well design and drilling technology seem inadequate to residents and to their elected officials in an age of miles-long horizontal wells, deep-earth hydraulic fracturing waste-fluid injection wells, and so-called mega-site wellpads that can host more than 40 wellheads.

Congressman Jared Polis, a Democrat who lives in Boulder and represents large swaths of gas patch residents, has battled unsuccessfully for greater regulation — as have many of the region’s Democratic state and local representatives. Polis sent out a statement at the same time Lepore was speaking to reporters in which he called the Firestone tragedy “avoidable.”

“What occurred in Firestone, while devastating, was predictable because Colorado sadly does not have adequate protections against dangerous oil and gas developments in our neighborhoods,” he wrote. “The days where oil and gas profits are valued more than Coloradans’ safety, property, and quality of life need to end. I call upon the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to take immediate steps to protect the public and implement new standards to prevent disasters like this from happening in the future. We cannot continue to delay local control, stricter safety standards, and greater setbacks.”

Boulder County last month passed the strictest rules in the state on new oil and gas drilling projects. The county commission fully expects to be sued by the oil and gas industry as a result. Indeed, a lawsuit filed against the county by the industry and by Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman that aimed to lift a moratorium on drilling in the county is ongoing, despite the fact that the moratorium ended Monday.

The influential drilling industry has fiercely resisted legislative efforts to increase the distance between neighborhoods and oil and gas operations and to bolster local zoning-style control over operations. Republican lawmakers citing economic imperatives and the rights of mineral owners have fought as a bloc any new regulation on drilling and any devolution of regulatory power on the part of the state to local authorities.

But drilling remains a top political concern among residents of the northern Front Range area — a region that stretches from Denver to the Wyoming border. Residents in its cities and towns have voted to ban or suspend drilling, only to be rebuffed by state courts. At local town hall meetings held by elected officials in recent months, hundreds and thousands of residents have made drilling a top priority.

Polis plans later this month to host town halls in Gilpin County, Summit County, and Evergreen, and he expects hundreds of constituents to turn out.

Tensions and suspicions long have run high among residents and they have been heightened in recent days by the events in Firestone.

Phil Doe, a prominent Colorado environmental activist and now environmental director at Be The Change, wrote an open letter on Monday to Gov. John Hickenlooper — a day before the link between oil and gas operations and the explosion in Firestone was announced — asking for an independent investigation into the incident.

“Fugitive gas leakage into homes and businesses constitutes a dangerous and apparently imminent threat to the public’s health and safety,” he wrote. “Blind deference to industry must cease. Colorado must accept its constitutional obligation to, first, protect public health and safety.  Only an independent investigation will give the public confidence its interests are being protected.”

* As has been widely reported, including by The Colorado Statesman, the oil and gas well sited 170 feet from the house that exploded in Firestone was drilled in 1993. The house was built in 2015. The Oak Meadows subdivision in Firestone that included the house started north of and expanded south toward the well. Drilling rules concerning setback distances from buildings in Colorado only apply to extraction companies drilling new wells, not to developers erecting buildings near wells or atop well fields and well lines.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.