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Fatal Colorado home blast caused by uncapped pipe leading to gas well

03 May 2017

Ted Poszywak, chief of the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District, told reporters on May 2 that his investigators had uncovered the cause of the April 17 house explosion in Firestone, 30 miles (45 km) north of Denver, that killed two and seriously injured another. An uncapped pipeline leading to a gas well nearby had leaked odorless, unrefined natural gas into the soil that seeped into the house.

Stock image
Stock image

The two dead were working on a water heater in the basement and at some point in their work the gas ignited, blowing the house to rubble and critically injuring the third.

At the same time, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ordered inspections and tests of all active and abandoned gas pipelines within 1,000 feet (300 metres) of occupied buildings.  He said energy companies would be required to perform pressure tests on flow lines which carry gas from wells to storage tanks or other collection points to identify which ones were leaking.
 “Public safety is paramount,” he said.

But Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said at the press conference that state well inspections and regulations would not necessarily prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future and that authorities, oil and gas operators and no-doubt lawmakers and concerned citizens will engage in “a continuing conversation about what happens next” to reassure concerned residents.

The Colorado Statesman quoted him as saying: “The COGCC inspects about 40,000 wells a year,” Lepore said, “I think 49,000 last year… but there is no comprehensive map of [well] flow lines. This flow line was cut relatively close to the home and the fact that it was cut that close and left uncapped matters more than the fact that the home was less than 200 feet from the well.”

Lepore said that the state does not test the integrity of lines where pressure measures less than 15 pounds per square inch. He said there are many well lines of all sorts across the state — and across Weld County in particular where the home explosion occurred — and he seemed unsure how the state and operators might go about making sure all abandoned well lines were not leaking in dangerous ways — into foundation drains, for example, as fire inspectors just hours before had reported was the case at the home in Firestone.

“What happened was highly unusual… It was horrible and horrifying,” Lepore said. “And we will seek to minimise the possibility of this happening again — and I think [oil and gas] operators will be hyper-vigilant about this going forward.”

Anadarko Petroleum owns the 20-year-old well 170 feet (60 metres) from the remains of the house to which the leaking pipe was attached. It announced on April 26 it had shut down 3,000 similar vertical wells across the area to carry out leak tests, a move that was followed several days later by another oil company active in and around Firestone, Great Western Oil & Gas, which announced it would shut and test 61 wells.

The Statesman quoted a statement by Congressman Jared Polis, a Democrat who lives in Boulder and represents many gas patch residents. He said: “What occurred in Firestone, while devastating, was predictable because Colorado sadly does not have adequate protections against dangerous oil and gas developments in our neighborhoods,” he wrote. “The days where oil and gas profits are valued more than Coloradans’ safety, property, and quality of life need to end. I call upon the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to take immediate steps to protect the public and implement new standards to prevent disasters like this from happening in the future. We cannot continue to delay local control, stricter safety standards, and greater setbacks.”

Meanwhile, Republican politicians and lawyers are trying to remove restrictions on drilling, recently imposed in the Boulder area.

Over a number years there has been considerable tension between gas patch residents and drillers over the proximity of oil and gas infrastructure to homes and schools. This is likely to be which have been heightened by the events in Firestone.

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