The oil and gas company linked to a deadly house explosion in Firestone last April told Rocky Mountain PBS that some of its equipment was a “contributing factor” in the blast.
The federal investigation that will officially determine the cause of the incident, however, may last another five to ten months, according to a spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board.
“It was devastating to our folks at every level,” said John Christiansen, the vice president of corporate communications for Anadarko, the company that owned the infrastructure at the time of the blast. “This is a company that has always put safety first and protection of the environment, and to have something like this occur in a place where our employees live and work [is] hard to describe.”
Risks Known For Years
State regulators and local legislators have known about about risks associated with flowlines for several years.
In 1996, the state required operators to annually pressure test flowlines to check for problems. But it wasn’t until 2016 – twenty years later – when Colorado regulators started auditing companies to make sure they were complying with state rules.
The move came after a 2014 risk assessment of the oil and gas industry revealed flowline failures were a “significant source of spills and releases to the environment,” and recommended that COGCC monitor their installation and operation.
“I’ll admit a pang of guilt because we asked for a report. The report came out. It predicted almost exactly what happened,” said Democrat state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Boulder, who sponsored legislation that led to the assessment.
Local fire investigators in Firestone initially said a cut, abandoned flowline, connected to an active well, leaked a volatile mixture of gas into Mark Martinez’s basement. Martinez was in that basement, working with Joey Irwin, his brother-in-law, to replace a malfunctioning water heater.
The gas ignited, causing a massive explosion and house fire, killing Martinez and Irwin. Martinez’s wife, Erin, suffered significant burns but survived.
“No one really foresaw this as a potential issue,” Christiansen said of the chain of events that are suspected to be linked to the blast. “And I think going forward, there is no question there is a heightened degree of awareness around it and a need to do better.”
Christiansen said Anadarko is working to increase the frequency of integrity testing on flowlines within 300 feet of a building. Currently, the state regulation requires testing at least once a year.
The company also temporarily closed and tested more than 3,000 wells after the explosion and completely eliminated a type of flowline, called a return line, from operations that were configured in the same way as the pipeline linked to the explosion.
Meanwhile, state regulators are preparing for a public rulemaking hearing in January, to address proposed changes and enhancements to Colorado’s flowline rules.
There are still many questions about the flowline linked to the explosion, including how it was cut, why it was connected to an active well, and whether it was properly abandoned in accordance with state regulations.
However, there are few historical records on file with regulators showing when and how flowlines have been taken in and out of service. Colorado did not require oil and gas operators to file records with the state regarding the abandonment of flowlines until 2005.
A properly abandoned line would need to be disconnected from both the pressure source and the receiving source, said Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. It would also have to be flushed and capped on both ends, he said.
At the time of the explosion, the questionable flowline was connected to an active well.
“Was it disconnected originally, as it should have been, and then reconnected for some reason?” Lepore questioned. “We don’t know the answer to that, but it clearly should not have been connected to the wellhead.”
In response to the tragedy in Firestone, regulators asked operators to report GPS data for their flowlines near buildings.
The state has never made a map publicly available showing the exact location and status of tens of thousands of flowlines affiliated with oil and gas operations using that data.
Inside Energy plotted those points on a map. In this map, we’ve taken the start and end points of each flowline and drawn a line between them so you can see the approximate flowline locations. Data is not available on the exact flowline routes. Zoom in for more detail. For a description of how we cleaned the data to prepare it for mapping, read our data notes.
New proposed state regulations would require companies to report GPS information and provide a schematic drawing of their flowlines to the state.
Lepore said there are limits to the preventative powers of any regulatory body.
“There is definitely an element of reliance on operators to self police and to follow the rules the way they’re written,” he said. “We can’t prevent everything.”
However, another proposed regulatory change to be reviewed early next year would allow a commission representative “to witness the integrity testing process and results” related to a company’s initial or annual flowline check.
While most spills and leaks are not dangerous or life-threatening, Singer said the state could be doing more to protect the public.
“At the end of the day, it is up to all of us; it’s up to the industry to take responsibility for this,” he said. “It’s up to our regulators to do the right thing. And ultimately, if those two fail, then it’s up to us as lawmakers to do the right thing.”
An Inside Energy review of state records revealed operators reported at least 322 spills or leaks linked to flowlines between 2014 and November 2017.
The most recent, statewide, public review of more than 107 thousand lines near buildings showed at least 429 had issues that caused them to fail an integrity test.
Industry leaders say that is a tiny fraction in a massive industry.
“I would argue we have been a safe industry, but you can always get better,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
“I think the industry did a great job of moving very quickly,” echoed Republican state Rep. Lori Saine (R-Weld).
Saine, who lives in Firestone, would like companies and the general public to have better access to records showing the history of oil and gas infrastructure, especially when it changes ownership from one company to another.
“We want to make sure this [tragedy] never happens again,” she said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said he hopes enhanced regulations would include testing on a greater number of pipelines and improved safety training. This summer, he also called for a more robust 811 system, which empowers people to learn about underground infrastructure that could interfere with excavation.
“Historically, we didn’t have any information on these flowlines,” he said, “and that became a recipe for disaster. … My guess is there are probably many many things we don’t regulate like that, and this is a constant process of trying to get better at it.”
No Statewide Regulations To Limit How Close Homes Can Be Built to Wells
Colorado regulators limit how close oil and gas wells can be drilled to development like roads, schools, and businesses. The closest that a well can come to a home, for example, is 500 feet. But there is no statewide standard for how close new homes can be built to existing wells.
In Firestone, for example, where the home exploded, the city allows houses to be built just 150 feet away from wells. That home on Twilight Avenue was built just 178 feet from the well that was linked to the incident.
This proximity is not unusual. Our analysis shows that since 2013, on Colorado’s Northern Front Range, at least 220 new wells are within 500 feet of homes. In some cases, operators have been given an exemption which allowed them to drill closer. In other cases, homes have been built near existing wells.
Tensions over this closeness are bubbling up in communities in Northern Colorado.
“We used to be worried about asthma and cancers and ruining our water. Now we’re also worried about our houses blowing up,” said Barbara Mills-Bria, of Lakewood, Colo., during a public meeting with oil and gas regulators in Denver this summer.
The stated intent of Colorado’s setback regulation is to “protect health, safety, and welfare.” While the rule, updated in 2013, does address nuisances like noise and lighting issues, according to rulemaking documents, there wasn’t enough data at the time to address more serious problems like air emissions.
“There was not, in our opinion, sufficient, clear, undisputed scientific evidence to base a setback number on,” said Matt Lepore, Director of the COGCC. “Frankly, nothing would make me happier than [to have] somebody to tell me 1,007.5 feet is safe for everybody. That would be fantastic. That’s not going to happen.”
Are current setbacks adequate to protect health and safety? Researchers tried to answer that question in a 2016 paper published in a journal called Environmental Health Perspectives. They examined existing setbacks in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado ranging from a few hundred feet to over a thousand. The conclusion was that these distances are not always good enough to protect people from risks like air emissions and explosions.
In the aftermath of the Firestone home explosion, regulators are not currently considering making changes to the setback rule. In the absence of state action, some towns like Broomfield, Thornton, and Lafayette are taking on the task of regulating themselves, pushing for greater setbacks within their own city limits.