State regulators are investigating whether oil and gas operations near the Oak Meadows neighborhood in Firestone caused a home explosion that killed two men and severely injured a woman a week and a half ago.
The stepped-up investigation, along with Anadarko Petroleum’s decision to shut down 3,000 of its older vertical wells in northeast Colorado, left residents in the area on edge despite repeated reassurances they are safe.
“The COGCC believes there is no immediate threat to the environment or public safety associated with oil and gas operations in the neighborhood,” said Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission at a news conference Thursday.
Depending on what investigators find, Lepore said the state may ask other producers to follow the example of Anadarko, which owns seven wells in the Firestone neighborhood.
If an aging well or improperly capped pipeline was behind the blast, it opens up a deeper pit of worry, given that thousands of people across the northern Front Range live in close proximity to thousands of older vertical wells.
Of the 54,000 active oil and gas wells in the state, around 48,000 are older vertical wells. About 5,700 are newer, horizontally drilled wells that have been criticized for their large scale and use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology. Colorado has another 80,000 or so inactive and abandoned wells.
Three days after the April 17 blast, state environmental inspectors collected samples from the wreckage of 6312 Twilight Ave. and the house to the west. They also made sure none of the seven wells in the neighborhood were still operating.
On Wednesday, investigators tested air quality throughout the neighborhood, and didn’t find any fugitive methane or other gas, Lepore said. On Thursday, state contractors began testing the soil in the neighborhood to see if hydrocarbons had migrated from a well and a pipeline about 178 feet from the house.
“Hey, when they dig those dirt samples for testing, will I get a copy of the results? I want to know,” Heather Sawlidi, 31, treasurer of the Oak Meadows Homeowners Association, asked one of the contractors marking grass Thursday morning. “Or are you just going to hide it?”
Sawlidi felt her home, four houses away, shake that afternoon during the explosion, and that evening, her 7-year-old son asked her: “If it happened at their house, can it happen at ours?”
“My kids are scared,” she said. “I have a right to know.”
The ongoing investigation, under the direction of the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District, hasn’t determined the precise cause of the blast.
Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin died while replacing a water heater in the basement of Martinez’s home. Martinez’s wife, Erin, was severely injured. Unlike the natural gas that utilities pipe into homes, gas leaking from wells or gathering pipelines can be odorless and difficult to detect without equipment.
“At this time, there is no evidence of any leaks on the Black Hills system,” said Carly West, spokeswoman for the utility that supplies gas to the neighborhood.
State investigators are focusing their attention on the closest vertical well, Coors V6-14JI, which was drilled in 1993, and a gathering pipeline that ran north from the well to a tank farm.
As the area developed, another pipeline was built to take production, mostly gas, to a tank farm to the west. But the original pipeline remains beneath the community.
When Sawlidi and her husband bought their house, completed in January 2015, they discussed the oil and gas operations in the neighborhood with builder Century Communities.
“Their people said that the lines that were closed were capped and closed off,” said Sawlidi, a former sales associate and now a stay-at-home mother of two. “To me, it meant gas was no longer flowing through those lines.”
An Anadarko employee in an unmarked gold Chevy pickup taking photos in front of Sawlidi’s house a week after the blast refused to identify himself. She said she had to ask police to find out who he was and what he was doing. And now the official statements assuring residents they are safe sound questionable, she said.
“They are fluffing in my face that everything is fine,” she said. “I refuse to lie to my son. Right now, I am afraid this will happen again. If you are saying it is ‘an isolated incident,’ prove to me this is how we know it won’t happen again.”
Down the street, on the other side of the charred debris where Martinez and Irwin died, Grace Frey, 61, stopped as she was backing out of her driveway to lament that she, while walking her dog, used to wave at Martinez.
Frey called the explosion and aftermath with soil-testing for gas vapors “surreal.” She said she’s “very concerned” about her safety and noted that some residents have moved to a motel.
“This makes me lose faith in the government and regulators,” she said. “You buy a house. You think you are safe. But did everybody do the right thing — the town, the builders — before they built the homes here? Did they test the soil before?”
Frey pointed to the well near the destroyed home. “I am under the suspicion that whoever had that well over there is responsible for the explosion of that house,” she said. “It is horrible.”
Setback rules the state approved in 2013 limit new oil and gas well drilling to 500 or more feet beyond existing homes. But those rules apply in only one direction.
Local governments regulate how close construction can come to existing oil and gas developments. Firestone’s municipal code allows houses to come within 150 feet.
Lepore said he was aware of only two home explosions in recent history linked to oil and gas operations. The two, in southern Colorado, involved homes located near or on top of abandoned wells.
Coors V6-14JI was actively producing oil and gas at the time of the explosion. But state records show it was shut in last year and that production resumed in January. The state allows companies to shut their wells down while they watch market prices to determine whether restarting makes economic sense. COGCC did not respond to questions about the rules for restarting shut-in wells.
Anadarko said its decision to shut down its wells was made out of an abundance of caution, and Lepore emphasized it was voluntary and not ordered by the state.
But investors hit the company hard, driving shares down 4.7 percent and shaving $1.7 billion off the Houston-area company’s market value, far more than the lost cash flow from losing 13,000 barrels of production a day for the two to four weeks the company said it needs to test those wells.