Amid calls for review of Colo. wells following explosion, agencies caution against rush to judgment

Posted at 3:41 PM, Apr 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-29 16:50:43-04

DENVER – Officials continue to urge people not to jump conclusions as to why a Colorado oil and gas operator shut in 3,000 of its wells following a home explosion in Firestone that killed two men.

The Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District on Friday said it wouldn’t release any further information about the April 17 explosion until it has determined the final cause and origin. Brothers-in-law Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin died in the explosion, which occurred while the two were installing a hot water heater at the home.

On Thursday, fire protection workers conducted air and soil tests in the area surrounding the home to be sure no outlying dangerous gasses were found.

“We know the anxiety, fear and great sadness this tragedy has caused the Martinez and Irwin families and our community, especially those living in close proximity to the scene,” Fire Chief Theodore Poszywak said. “Due to the measures taken to date, we are confident that no hazards have gone beyond the investigation site.”

Similarly, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said that there were no hazards found after inspection.

But the commission said it urged that “politics be placed on the sideline while details are still forthcoming,” a nod to a call by the Boulder County Board of Commissioners Thursday for all vertical wells to be shut in, and a Friday call by the Adams County Board of Commissioners for all county wells within 250 feet of occupied buildings to be inspected immediately.

A CU-Denver researcher found in a 2016 report that there were about 6,000 homes in Colorado within 300 feet of an oil or gas well.

The well nearest to the home that exploded in Firestone was just 178 feet from the home.

So what exactly are investigators looking for in regards to underground gases that could have played a role in the explosion?

Stanford researcher Rob Jackson, a leading expert on oil and gas wells, says crews have a “challenging investigation” on their hands with the Firestone explosion.

He has studied natural gas leaks from wells for nearly a decade, and explained exactly what investigators are looking for in the soil samples they’ve been taking in recent days.

He said they would be looking at the samples from the nearby area, from nearby wells, and underground to see if there is extra methane or extra natural gas moving around underground.

Jackson said that if evidence of a natural gas leak is found, there are two things that could have caused the explosion.

First, methane could have leaked out of the ground itself underneath the house or out from gathering lines that take the natural gas from the well to the processing plant.

The second possibility, Jackson says, is methane escaping from old wells.

“If there are old wells, wells that might have been drilled and abandoned many decades ago, they also have provided pathways for methane to leak into people’s houses,” Jackson said.

He says if the soil samples comes back negative, that it’s much more likely the explosion was caused by human error.

“That’s what causes most natural gas accidents,” Jackson said.

He added that Anadarko Petroleum Corporation’s decision to shut in 3,000 wells “out of an abundance of caution,” as the company said was the reason, was very unusual and would be costly for the company.

Jackson also said that if it happened to have been caused by a methane leak from the well, that Martinez and Irwin never would have smelled the gas beforehand.

Anadarko says the shut in of the wells and subsequent investigation is expected to take between two and four weeks and will cost the company roughly 13,000 barrels of oil per day.

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