Fatal home explosion in Firestone reignites setback debate | MyWindsorNow.com

Fatal home explosion in Firestone reignites setback debate

Dan Boyce
Inside Energy

On the afternoon of April 17, 10-year-old Gillian Chapman and her little sister Kailey were on their front porch. Gillian had on her roller blades; Kailey had her scooter. They had just gotten permission to go visit their friend Jaelynn across the street and two doors down.

Then, Jaelynn's house exploded.

"The house just split open," Gillian said. "You could see the upstairs." Jaelynn Martinez was not in her home at the time, but her father Mark and uncle Joey Irwin were in the basement and were killed in the blast. Her mother, Erin Martinez was injured.

The explosion, in the southern Weld County town of Firestone, is prompting a lot of questions in the state about how oil and gas wells are regulated, and how close to old wells new homes should be built. The incident was linked to a leaking gas line, which had not been property abandoned, running from an active well 178 feet from the property. The town of Firestone regulates homes to be constructed at least 150 feet from an existing well.

Within days after the incident, Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered statewide inspections of all such lines, called flowlines, within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings within 30 days.

In a press conference days after learning the explosion's cause, Hickenlooper said he hoped that time frame put an increased sense of urgency on the matter.

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Today, there is no comprehensive state map showing where all flowlines exist. Hickenlooper said the lines had always been negotiated between surface owners and local communities.

"Most of the newer generation of oil and gas wells, I'd say post-1999, we have a pretty good idea of those wells and where those lines are," Hickenlooper said. "I don't think it's unreasonable to want to know where those lines are. I'm not compelled that it's got to be state that controls that, but every county should want to know and every municipality should want to know where every flowline is in their town."

Julia Chapman said when she bought her house a couple of years ago, neighboring oil and gas sites just weren't something they thought about.

"We just sort of trusted that the city and the oil and gas (industry) knew what they were doing," she said.

At a press conference, Matt Lepore, director of Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, called the explosion "highly unusual." Hickenlooper called it the "perfect storm."

Lepore said the state is looking very hard at the issue and is taking steps "to absolutely minimize any possibility of this happening again."

Colorado's population has increased by a half a million people since 2010 — bringing with it a lot of new home construction along the state's clustered Front Range. Weld County issued more than 5,000 new building permits in the past two years. The city of Greeley in the past two years issued 693 building permits for single-family homes and permits to build 825 multiple-family housing units. The northern Front Range also happens to be where much of Colorado's oil and gas production is located. State data as of April 1, show there are now 54,391 active oil and gas wells in the state. In Weld, there are 23,319 active wells, or about 43 percent of the wells in the state.

While it's tempting to point fingers at the number of abandoned wells in the state as potential sources for more flowline issues, Lepore said that's not the immediate problem.

"Frankly, a plugged and abandoned well is not a concern because it is not connected to any flowlines," Lepore said.

A plugged and abandoned well has no wellhead and has been cut off and capped below ground, he said. The flowine in question in the Firestone fire was still attached to a producing well, and it was not properly plugged at the wellhead.

For the record, there are 3,986 plugged and abandoned wells and another 1,814 dry holes that were abandoned in Weld; in Greeley there are 475 active wells and 72 abandoned wells, 68 of which were plugged and four that were dry holes. Statewide, there are 15,755 wells that have been plugged and abandoned and 20,770 that were abandoned because they were dry holes, according to COGGC numbers.

Shortly after the accident, Anadarko Petroleum shut down 3,000 old vertical wells in the area, vowing to inspect and repair any faulty lines or equipment. Other companies followed suit.

Regulators insist there is no more danger for the surrounding properties surrounding the Martinez home.

"I would say (with the heightened scrutiny) we're probably safer now than we've ever been," Chapman said.

But, more new homes keep going up. And while new oil wells must be drilled at least 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from buildings such as schools and nursing homes, there is no state regulation for the inverse — no rule for how far new homes must be built from existing oil wells.

When asked about whether the state should enact these so-called "reverse setbacks," Northern Colorado Homebuilders Association Executive Officer Gregory Miedema said the industry would be willing to discuss anything that would keep confidence in the home-buying public.

"What they want to make sure is they don't price the public out of a new home," he said, explaining any new regulations could shrink the available land on which to build new homes, thereby raise housing prices.

— Tribune reporter Sharon Dunn contributed to this report.

Well Inspections

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has an active well inspection program, inspecting thousands of wells each month. Here’s how it breaks down so far for 2017.

Month / Weld County / State

January / 654 / 2,604

February / 672 / 2,638

March / 788 / 3,418

April / 828 / 2,375

Source: Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

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