Update: This story was originally published on March 12. On April 13, the COGCC voted unanimously to levy the $18.2 million fine.
“For my family and I, today is an impossible day. How exactly are we supposed to put a dollar amount on the lives of two extraordinary men, who really shouldn’t even have lost their lives like this in the first place?” said Erin Martinez, who lost her husband and brother in the explosion. “The bottom line: had you done your job correctly, my husband, my children’s father, and my bother would be alive today.”
Colorado oil and gas regulators are seeking an $18 million fine against a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum for the company’s failure to follow state laws for pipeline inspections and the subsequent 2017 Firestone explosion that killed two men and left a woman badly burned.
Much of the money from the penalty would be spent on research and development aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas drilling on Colorado’s Front Range, state officials said.
The explosion happened after Anadarko, which was purchased by Occidental in 2019, connected a tank battery to a pipeline that was severed and turned on the gas. The gas then leaked into a home at 6312 Twilight Avenue in Firestone. On April 17, 2017, 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 exploded. Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife and Joey’s sister, was hospitalized.
Martinez has since become an advocate of oil and gas reforms, including Senate Bill 181, which required the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to write new rules for drilling in Colorado. A flowline rule adopted in November requires operators to map and make publicly available the locations of their flowlines.
Before the explosion, according to the COGCC, Anadarko failed to secure and inspect pipes and valves, take reasonable precautions to prevent failures, leakage and corrosion of pipelines, and disconnect abandoned pipelines. The company also failed to prevent “significant adverse environmental impacts to air, water, soil, or biological resources to the extent necessary to protect public health, safety and welfare,” officials said.
The COGCC said it assessed the maximum daily penalty of $15,000 for each violation and applied an aggravating factor of death. The penalty is more than 11 times higher than the previous highest penalty, according to the COGCC.
“COGCC believes that today’s response is fair and appropriate,” said COGCC Director Jeff Robbins during a press conference in Denver on Thursday.
The fine is being assessed against Kerr McGee, a subsidiary of Anadarko, which was later sold to Occidental Petroleum. A company spokeswoman said it does not plan to contest the penalties or the allegations.
“We are mindful of the events of April 17, 2017, every day, and our thoughts continue to be with the families, friends and communities affected by the Firestone tragedy,” said Jennifer Brice, a spokeswoman for Occidental, in an emailed statement.
Robbins said the COGCC’s nine-member commission will decide whether to approve the penalty on April 6.
Here’s how the COGCC said it would spend the money:
- $2 million to perform aerial surveys for methane leaks at least once per year for two years in the Denver-Julesburg Basin.
- Nearly 1.6 million plus $250,000 per year for two years to acquire a mobile air-monitoring van to measure pollutants and help determine and locate leaks.
- $1.1 million on infrared cameras to view methane emitted at oil and gas facilities.
- $1 million per year on a team of faculty and researchers at the University of Chicago to work with state health officials to identify new technology to improve air quality. The university’s E&E Lab is developing machine-learning models to help the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment improve air emissions monitoring, state officials said. It’s also working on remote sensing technologies, such as satellite, drone and aircraft-mounted sensors, which state officials said could lower the cost of emissions monitoring and improve measurement precision.
- $1.1 million on research and development funding for the Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center at Colorado State University.
- $200,000 for gas detection and metering equipment.
- $42,000 for remote methane detection technology.
- $50,000 for legal expense reimbursements. According to the COGCC, Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District incurred legal expenses related to the Firestone investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board process.