Public interest in Colorado oil and gas operations after tragedy nothing new in wake of 1984 LaSalle lumber yard explosion
April 29, 2017
Timeline of LaSalle natural gas problems
» Feb. 5, 1984 — Local developer Arlo Richardson begins hydraulic fracturing operation six-tenths of a mile south of Wickes Lumber showroom, 100 2nd St. in LaSalle.
» Feb. 9, 1984 — A natural gas explosion blew a small hole in the parking lot of Wickes Lumber showroom. Officials believe the explosion rushed upwards through the shaft of an abandoned water well. The blast caused $3,000 in damage.
» Feb. 18, 1984 — About 12:49 a.m., a massive explosion caused a seven-hour fire at the Wickes Lumber showroom. Sixty-five firefighters from five departments responded. The blast caused no injuries, but caused $544,000 in damage.
» Feb. 20, 1984 — The Wickes Lumber showroom reopened. Officials were quoted as saying natural gas rose upwards through an abandoned sewer line and caused the explosion.
» Feb. 21, 1984 — Pockets of natural gas were discovered below the Wickes sight, but gas was not found in other parts of town. Bill Smith, the director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told the Greeley City Council he did not believe the oil and gas operation was responsible for the explosion.
» Feb. 23, 1984 — Pipes were placed in the ground on the Wickes site, allowing remaining natural gas to escape from the ground.
» Feb. 24, 1984 — At an afternoon news conference, officials said they were “very confident” the pockets of natural gas in LaSalle were restricted to the Wickes site.
» March 1, 1984 — Officials removed a slab of concrete from the Wickes basement. A fountain of water and gas shot 4 feet into the air. Officials said the water came from an unknown, abandoned water well.
» March 5, 1984 — The COGCC ordered a 15-day halt to all fracking operations within a two-mile radius of LaSalle.
» March 7, 1984 — Natural gas was discovered beneath a bank building across U.S. 85 from the Wickes site. As a result, 476 middle school students were bused to Gilcrest and Platteville for school for the next two weeks, because the school was near the bank.
» March 9, 1984 — The Greeley City Council declared a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas drilling in the city.
» Oct. 17, 1984 — A consultant study, which cost $70,000 paid for by county and municipal governments, concluded gas from a nearby well may have played a role in the explosion. It called for stricter industry regulations.
» Nov. 6, 1984 — Citing safety concerns, the Greeley City Council rejected an application for an oil and gas drilling operation in west Greeley.
» Nov. 8, 1984 — The Greeley City Council approved one drilling operation in a 4-2 vote.
The setting and the key players are different, but the chain of events following a fatal Firestone house explosion earlier this month is drawing parallels to an oil and gas drama that unfolded more than 30 years ago in LaSalle.
Just after midnight on Feb. 18, 1984, a massive explosion at the Wickes Lumber showroom, 100 2nd St. in LaSalle, created a seven-hour blaze and warranted a response from 65 volunteer firefighters who dueled the 150-foot flames until dawn. The explosion ripped the glass out of nearby storefront windows and piled debris 2 feet deep.
Mercifully, no one was injured because it happened in the middle of the night, and the lumberyard managed to resume business a day later.
It was determined later that the explosion was caused by a rush of natural gas through the shaft of an abandoned water well, one of many that honeycombed the earth beneath the small town. The question — which has never been satisfactorily answered — is where that natural gas came from.
The incident set the stage for months-long scrutiny of the Colorado oil and gas industry, because of a hydraulic fracturing operation begun Feb. 5, 1984, just over half a mile from the lumberyard. In the days following the explosion, some residents speculated pressure from the oil and gas operation forced the natural gas upward, causing it to erupt into flames on Feb. 18.
Arlo Richardson, the owner of the well, found the prospect of natural gas traveling 8,500 feet upward through 5,000 feet of shale improbable.
"I could tell you an accumulation of beans under the Armadillo (restaurant) caused that explosion," he told The Tribune in a Feb. 20, 1984, article. "I'd have a better chance of spitting 8,500 feet than fracking 8,500 feet."
Richardson did not return a call Friday for comment.
Still, the explosion raised eyebrows and increased public interest in oil and gas regulations at both state and local levels, much the same as the recent incident in Firestone has done.
At a news conference held by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, questions were raised about whether the commission should regulate how close homes can be built to existing wells. Now, the COGCC only regulates the distance new wells can be located from existing structures. How close homes can be built to existing wells is left to town and local governments to decide.
The Firestone house that exploded earlier this month was 178 feet from a 24-year-old vertical well. It met the city's criteria, which requires homes be built at least 150 feet away from oil and gas wells. Authorities have not yet determined whether the 1993 well played a role in the tragedy, which claimed two lives April 17.
Bill Eustes, associate professor of petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, cautioned against jumping to conclusions in a case such as this. Oil and gas operations may well have had their part in the explosion — or they might not have, he said.
"The best thing to do is to let the experts do their job," he said.
It's a sentiment that echoes a statement made by Richardson three decades earlier, when asked about the cause of the explosion.
"No one knows," he said on Feb. 20, 1984. "Only God knows, and he's not telling."
Two days after Richardson made that statement, his oil well appeared to be absolved of guilt in the blast.
A Tribune front-page headline from Feb. 22, 1984, reads, "Well drilling rejected as blast cause," and states then-COGCC director Bill Smith said he did not believe the oil well was responsible for the explosion. They were not light words from Smith, who championed tougher drilling standards and more field inspectors for the oil industry.
Still, the spring of 1984 was a "time of uncertainty" in LaSalle, according to a Tribune editorial a year later. The question "what were you doing on the night Wickes exploded" became a staple of small talk in the town of 3,100 people. A Diamond Shamrock gas station sits on the site of the Wickes lumberyard today.
In March 1984 — a month after the explosion — natural gas was discovered beneath a bank building across U.S. 85 from the Wickes lumberyard, prompting the evacuation of 476 students from a nearby middle school. For the next two weeks, the students were bused to Gilcrest and Platteville due to safety concerns. The mood was tense enough for LaSalle Police Chief Carl Harvey to comb the town himself, in search of long-forgotten water wells that could serve as avenues for natural gas explosions.
That same week, the Greeley City Council declared a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas operations in the city, a measure it upheld months later on Nov. 6, 1984, when it rejected an application for a new oil and gas operation in west Greeley. The council softened its tone two days later when it approved drilling on another well, but the vote was not unanimous.
"I'm not prepared to support drilling of any type," said Councilman Jack Cochran at the time.
The mood pervaded even though no definitive evidence existed that Richardson's oil and gas operation was related to the Wickes explosion. On Oct. 17, 1984, a $70,000 consultant study paid for by county and local governments concluded the drilling might have played a role, but the study was not certain. Still, it recommended tighter regulations on the industry.
Those regulations did come. In early 1985, the Greeley City Council passed a measure requiring developers to identify abandoned water wells on potential drilling sites, and clarify they had been accurately plugged. Early Tribune coverage of the Wickes explosion pointed out that, at the time, fracking was "not closely regulated" and that "no inspections were made" on such operations.
An April 1985 Tribune editorial, though, lauded the COGCC for beginning to change its policies and said "adequate precautions have been taken to prevent future incidents like the Wickes lumberyard explosion."
LaSalle Mayor Bruce Kamada felt the same way.
"At the beginning, I quite honestly felt (the COGCC was) ignoring our problems up here and were dragging their feet," he told The Tribune in 1985. "But now we're seeing another approach from the oil and gas commission, one of cooperation."
While officials have not yet determined the cause of the Firestone explosion, increased public interest in oil and gas operations after a tragedy is nothing new. It happened in LaSalle in 1984, and, according to those quoted in contemporary media coverage, it had a positive effect.