Cause of Colorado home explosion: Uncapped, abandoned line, ‘fugitive gas’
An abandoned underground pipe running from a nearby Anadarko Petroleum well to the foundation of the Firestone home that exploded last month had not been capped, allowing the odorless gas to seep into the basement.
Fire officials say that fugitive gas escaping the abandoned line penetrated the ground near the home’s foundation and entered the French drain where it found its way through the sump pump and inside the home. There, the right mix of gas and air found “an ignition source” and exploded, Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District Chief Ted Poszywak said during a news conference today.
“It would appear an unusual and tragic set of circumstances occurred here,” the chief said. Those circumstances, he added, included proper identification of and maintenance of abandoned flowlines.
On April 17, Joey Irwin, a master plumber, was helping his brother-in-law, homeowner Mark Martinez, fix the hot water heater in the basement when the home at 6312 Twilight Avenue exploded. Early speculation was that they may have caused the blast. But at a news conference this afternoon, Chief Poszywak was emphatic that Irwin and Martinez were in no way responsible.
“I want to stress this point: There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the deaths of Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, his brotherin law, were the result of any criminal or improper activity on their part,” he said.
Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife and Joey’s sister, is still hospitalized with serious burns and other injuries.
The Martinez home, completed in 2015, sat 178 feet from a well drilled in 1993 by the Gerrity Oil and Gas Corporation, sold to Noble Energy in 2005 and sold again in 2014 to Anadarko, Colorado’s biggest oil and gas producer. That well produces mostly gas, but some oil, and is part of a broad patchwork of wells and related oil and gas storage and processing systems Anadarko owns and operates in the area. The well was dormant through 2016, but on Jan. 28, Anadarko reactivated it.
Two northward directed flowlines from the well passed through the property before the parcel and surrounding Oak Meadows neighborhood were developed in the past several years. One line since has been capped. The other wasn’t, and instead had a valve at its end. That valve remained open. When Anadarko restarted the well, unrefined gas began to flow through that line again. The fire chief described it today as a mix of “methane and propane and various other minerals and elements,” that are much more volatile than refined gas.
The state says there’s no map of flowlines in the area.
Those who’ve seen the flowline in question told The Colorado Independent that it was neatly cut below grade right where the south side of the home’s foundation now stands.
It’s unclear who capped one line, but not the other, when that happened, and why the valve remained in the on position when the processing and storage site to which the line once led had been removed. Anadarko hasn’t said whether it inspected the flow line when it bought the well and when Oak Meadows was being developed. The company did not respond to inquires seeking comment.
It is also unclear why the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the regulatory agency responsible for oversight of the oil and gas industry, waited two weeks to disclose the existence of the flowline.
At a news conference last week, COGCC Director Matt Lepore acknowledged in response to a question that “at one time there were flow lines” running from the well northward to a near processing facility. What he did not say, however, is that the original line still existed and had been severed right where the Martinez’s home was built.
The spot where it was cut has been cordoned off by bright orange plastic netting and yellow police tape after the fatal blast.
Public and private investigators and inspectors working on and near the site have said for more than a week that they were ordered by the agencies and companies employing them not to comment about the line, and told – several times – that, if they do, they could lose their jobs and be sued.
“It’s a tight ship,” a source close to the probe said earlier this week. “But…this story needs to get straight because this don’t seem to be a problem with that well itself as much as a problem with … the broader system.
“Why they’re not telling you that, I don’t know.”
The home’s developer, Century Communities, wouldn’t comment on why the flowline wasn’t removed when the home was built, passing our inquiry to public relations consultant Andy Boian.
“Why not get rid of it? Good question,” Boian said about the flowline this morning. “I’ll get back to you on that.” Boian called back to say, “We don’t have any answers yet.”
In the same interview, he said both that Century Communities knew about the flowline and didn’t know about the flowline. When asked to clarify, he added, “We know nothing more than what you do.”
Anadarko last week shut down more than 3,000 vertical wells in response to the blast, leaving residents of Colorado’s ever-developing gas patch wondering if wells near their own homes or businesses are putting them at risk and if requirements for greater distances, or “setbacks” between wells and homes or businesses are needed.
The fire chief went out of his way at today’s press conference to say the well and its distance from the house were not the issue, and that the pipeline was: “I also want to note, given the attention on this issue, the proximity of the well to the home was not a contributing cause in this incident or investigation. It was the pipeline rather than the wellhead that caused a buildup of methane that led to the explosion.”
In light of the fire department’s findings today, safety issues concerning abandoned or faulty pipes – which often are significantly closer to homes than wells, and far less regulated by the state – will no doubt heighten concerns and amplify Colorado’s oil and gas debate.
“Oil and gas operations and neighborhoods don’t mix very well,” Democratic Rep. Mike Foote, of Lafayette, who earlier this session pushed for a bill mandating a 1,000-foot setback for wells from school property lines, told The Independent.
“We’ve been trying to bring this issue up and get some positive change on the issue for several years but the industry has remained steadfast against any kind of change.”
Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement today that community safety is the industry’s “highest priority,” and that in the coming weeks and months, “we will endeavor to enhance flowline and pipeline procedures and remain committed to improving Colorado oil and gas production.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas geologist, today called for a statewide review of existing oil and gas operations, including flowlines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings. The state wants to ensure that all lines that aren’t in use are properly marked and capped, and that all abandoned lines are cut below the surface and sealed.
At a second news conference this afternoon, COGCC’s Lepore gave mixed messages about who’s responsible for the abandoned line that has devastated a family, shaken Firestone and left Coloradans on edge.
Answering that question at first, he responded, “We would look to Anadarko to see if it followed and was in compliance with our rules.” But then he wavered, saying, “Anadarko might, as a response to our enforcement actions, say wait a second, we can show that somebody else is responsible.” Later he said, “We don’t really know who is responsible. Anadarko was able to take over this well and didn’t realize that something was so awry.”
The COGCC is the arm of the state tasked with keeping Coloradans safe from ever-increasing oil and gas development. Lepore said last week that his agency “does not have specific rules for development being located over flowlines.”
The agency does, however, have rules for abandoned lines. Rule 1103 of COGCC pipeline regulations regulations clearly says those lines need to be disconnected from wells.
A recent Colorado Court of Appeals decision found that the COGCC must ensure the protection of public health and the environment before allowing oil and gas drilling.
The name of that case, coincidentally, is Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Reporters Kelsey Ray, Tina Griego, Corey Hutchins and Marianne Goodland contributed to this report. Photo by Dennis Herrera
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