DENVER–The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on April 13 levied the largest fine in Colorado history against an oil and gas producer over a 2017 explosion in a Firestone home that resulted in two deaths as the residents were installing a new water heater in the basement.
A federal report on the explosion also laid some of the blame at the feet of the local government.
The explosion at 6312 Twilight Avenue killed Mark Martinez and plumber Joey Irwin and caused serious burns to Irwin’s sister and Martinez’s wife Erin and destroyed the house.
At a special Commission hearing, conducted online due to the Governor’s COVID19 public health orders, an $18.5 million penalty was levied against Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, current owner of the gas well.
“This amount is the maximum dollar amount possible and included, for the first time, the ‘aggravating factor of death.’ This aggravating factor increased one of the penalties from $3.6 million to $5.4 million. Because of the loss of lives, this is the largest penalty ever by COGCC, by more than 11 times,” says the April 13 press release.
The Commission found that a one-inch plastic and two two-inch steel pipelines had not been properly disconnected from a nearby gas well prior to the construction of a new residential subdivision on the existing gas field.
The well, drilled in 1993, was originally owned by Patina Oil and Gas Corporation and was acquired by Anardako Petroleum, parent company of Kerr-McGee, in October 2013.
The well, lying about 170 feet south of where the residence was eventually built, was put back into production less than three months prior to the explosion.
When the subdivision was built on the gas field in 2015, earthmoving equipment apparently severed three underground flow lines about six feet from the foundation of the new house.
The old flow lines were never properly disconnected from the well head as required by Commission regulations.
Over time, unscented natural gas percolated through the ground and entered the basement until enough gas mixed with the air to create an explosive mixture that was set off by the homeowners working in the basement.
So-called “fugitive natural gas” was found in the soil after the explosion.
Natural gas as extracted is nearly odorless, colorless and lighter than air. An odorant with a distinct putrid scent called methyl mercaptan is added to natural gas before being distributed to homes to ensure residents can detect leaks.
As a result of the disaster Governor Polis ordered immediate inspection of all oil and gas wells and flow lines statewide.
Anadarko shut down more than 3,000 wells and plugged about 3,600 one-inch flow lines in Weld County in compliance with that order.
Occidental acquired Kerr-McGee parent company Anardako last year and accepted the responsibility for the disaster as part of an agreement with the Commission.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a report in October 2019 laying some of the blame on the government of Firestone for inadequate regulation of builders on a known oil and gas field.
“Contributing to the accident was the approval by local authorities to allow occupied structures to be built on land adjacent to or previously part of oil and gas production fields without complete documentation from the operator,” says the report.
Erin Martinez excoriated the NTSB for the seven-page report and was actively involved in the passage of Senate Bill 19-181 that reconstituted the Commission and imposed extensive new regulatory requirements that have seriously affected oil and gas exploration in Colorado.