One worker dead, three injured in Anadarko gas tank explosion near Mead

One worker was killed and three injured near Mead when an oil tank battery exploded this afternoon.

The facility, which stores extracted oil and gas awaiting transport, is owned and operated by Anadarko Petroleum, which also owns the improperly abandoned gas flowline that investigators say caused the deadly house explosion in Firestone last month.

In separate news today, Anadarko also disclosed that two pockets of high-concentration, fugitive gas had been discovered underground near the scene of the Firestone explosion. The company said it would be permanently shutting down three wells in that neighborhood.

The Mead explosion occurred at 3:15 this afternoon, about four miles from the Firestone site.

Mountain View Fire Battalion Chief Roger Rademacher said three workers working near the tank battery were injured and transported by ambulance. One has serious injuries and the two others are moderately injured. Sheriff’s officials confirmed early this evening that a fourth worker was killed in the blast.

By 6 p.m., police cars had blocked all access roads to the facility. A family, accompanied by a man in a hardhat, could be seen weeping near a road next to the site of the blast. They asked to be left alone and not to be photographed.

Police say “Preliminary information suggests that maintenance was possibly being performed on the site when the incident happened.”

Corporal Matt Turner, a public information officer for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, told The Colorado Independent, “We don’t have any link between this incident and the methane discovered in Firestone.” Because this was a work-related accident and there is no suspected criminal activity, he said, the sheriff’s office will not be conducting further investigation. He called the explosion “an unfortunate accident.”

Tank battery sites store extracted oil and gas awaiting transport. Colorado’s oil and gas regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), did not begin recording or taking inventory of tank battery sites until 2009. The majority of sites predating 2009 remain undocumented and unregulated.

An intact Anadarko tank battery close to the site of the Firestone blast is pictured below. It’s four miles from the tank battery that blew up today.

Hours before the Mead explosion, Anardarko announced that two high concentration pockets of flammable methane gas have been found near the tank pictured here in Firestone’s Oak Meadows neighborhood. Soil samples show methane saturation at close to 14 percent. “That means the ground was drenched with the stuff,” says a source close to the industry.

Mitigation is under way, the company said, with PVC venting and extraction systems set up at the gas pockets in Firestone. Contractors have been testing the site since at least last week.

Craig Walters, vice president of Anadarko’s Rocky Mountain operations, told attendees at an Oak Meadows Homeowners Association meeting Wednesday evening that the company would be permanently shutting down three wells near the site. Inspections show the wells to be safe, Walters said, but that the company will plug and abandon them permanently because of the “special circumstances and sensitivity” around the equipment. Anadarko temporarily shut 3,000 wells earlier this month when an investigation linked the explosion to one of their wells.

The Firestone explosion was caused by an improperly abandoned flowline leading from the well, which leaked flammable natural gas into the ground near the home of Erin and Mark Martinez. On April 17, this gas caught fire in the basement of the home, critically wounding Erin and killing Mark and his brother-in-law, Joey Irwin.

Walters said Wednesday night that Anadarko is “actively participating” in an investigation into that incident. That probe is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, because pipelines are considered a form of transportation. The company says it cannot answer questions about the incident itself while the investigation is underway.

At the HOA’s request, Anadarko is providing funding for the purchase of home natural gas detection devices. The gas that seeped into the Martinez home was unprocessed, without the additive mercaptan, which provides the telltale “gas smell.”

The company also has provided posters showing the location of its active underground flowlines in the neighborhood. Those maps aren’t kept by the COGCC, leaving the public in the dark about what lies beneath their homes, offices and schools.

The oil and gas industry recently worked to kill proposed legislation that would have required the state regulatory agency to map all active and inactive flowlines across Colorado. The line that caused the Firestone tragedy was considered inactive.

Both today’s blast and the fatal home explosion in April raise questions about Anadarko’s safety practices. Company officials gathered near the Mead site earlier this evening, but beyond the point where police would allow this reporter access to seek the company’s comment.

Heather Sawlidi, treasurer for the Oak Meadows Homeowner’s Association, told The Colorado Independent that Anadarko has not provided satisfying answers to all of residents’ questions. At the meeting Wednesday, she said, “A lot of it was, ‘Here’s what we can tell you — and you can try to make assumptions on the rest.'” Anadarko is not speaking about the Firestone incident while a federal investigation is under way. She added, “That doesn’t help us. That doesn’t make us feel any better.”

Both explosions also raise questions about the efficacy of the COGCC and the wisdom of  its dual roles as both a booster of oil and gas production and the industry’s health and safety regulator.

Weeks before the Firestone explosion, the Colorado Court of Appeals handed down a benchmark decision in March ordering the COGCC to prioritize public health and safety concerns above its role promoting the industry. The COGCC decided to appeal the case to the Colorado Supreme Court and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman filed on its behalf over the public objection of Gov. John Hickenlooper. Despite the governor’s insistence that his office should decide whether an appeal should go forward, he said he would not challenge either the COGCC or the the Attorney General’s decision. That has earned him further criticism from conservationists and residents of the gas patch who say the governor is insensitive to their concerns.

Hickenlooper is a former oil and gas industry geologist who made headlines drinking fracking fluid during a U.S. Senate Committee hearing. He asserted last week that the COGCC is doing its job protecting the public from health and safety threats posed by the industry.


Photo credit: Kelsey Ray

Susan Greene contributed to this report.