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Questions mount after host of Colorado oil and gas incidents; safety investigations continue

Posted at 3:47 PM, May 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-27 00:57:24-04

WELD COUNTY, Colo. – Gov. John Hickenlooper says there is currently “no reason to believe” that the circumstances behind Thursday’s deadly explosion at an oil tank battery in Weld County are similar to those that caused a home in Firestone to explode last month, killing two.

The name of the worker who died at the scene of Thursday’s incident at the Anadarko-owned battery is expected to be released later Friday. The death was the third linked to Anadarko-owned oil and gas properties in Colorado in the past two months.

Three others suffered burns in Thursday’s incident, while the Firestone explosion killed two and left another woman with severe burns.

“Today is about the victims and families of the Mead accident. It’s a terrible tragedy and our hearts and prayers are with them and the entire Mead community,” Hickenlooper said.

“We certainly recognize the safety concerns raised given the recent home explosion in Firestone, but at this time we have no reason to believe that there is any relationship between the circumstances that led to these two accidents,” he continued.

Federal investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) have joined local and state authorities to determine the cause of Thursday’s fire and explosion.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is among the state authorities investigating. A spokesman told Denver7 Friday that in addition to helping local fire authorities in the investigation, it will assist OSHA with “technical aspects of oil and gas operations,” the spokesman said.

COGCC says it also sent an environmental protection specialist to the scene of Thursday’s explosion to determine if anything was released in the explosion that could affect the environment.

Anadarko will be tasked to file an official accident report with COGCC, and the commission has asked Anadarko to find the root cause of the explosion and provide the commission with a written report of its findings.

The Mountain View Fire Protection District is leading the local investigation, which the department says may take “several weeks” to complete.

In the meantime, its crews have gone door-to-door near the site of the explosion to test for any outlying gas and talk with residents. Assistant Chief Roger Rademacher said that as of Friday afternoon, no gasses had been detected at the site or close to homes.

But a report from COGCC and Anadarko shown to Firestone residents at a Wednesday meeting showed that a new methane cloud had been discovered just west of the home explosion site during testing in early May, and that the methane levels were even higher than those at the site of the explosion.

The testing for that small area, which Hickenlooper ordered after the explosion, was completed on May 12, but the report wasn’t shown to residents until 12 days later.

“If agencies believed at any time a threat to public safety existed, we would have taken immediate action to protect residents,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman told Denver7 in response to questions Friday. “The HOA invited the COGCC as well as Anadarko to a meeting to update the community on May 24; COGCC believed that was the right forum to review and discuss its findings to date in direct communication with neighbors.”

Hartman added that the new methane plume detected may have differed from the one that caused the explosion.

“It’s possible the gas released at the eastern end did not wind up in the soil, but instead entered the French drain and basement [at the home],” Hartman said.

Anadarko said it was permanently shutting in three wells in that neighborhood, including the one that led to the explosion.

But Linneay Burson, who lives in the Firestone neighborhood and recently moved there, says she has concerns.

"We just found out about that on Wednesday, and I think that's changed the game for me," she said. "It certainly brings up a lot of anxiety. I mean we look at it every day from our windows--we're looking out onto this."

And she says that she wants officials to communicate better, though she says she's happy they are permanently shutting in the wells in the neighborhood.

"We had no idea there was a pipeline behind our house. It's new information to us and newly disclosed to us," Burson added. "We just put all the money we have and our dreams into this home...so we hope to not have to move."

But northern Colorado Democrats and other environmental organizations expressed concern at the recent string of incidents involving oil and gas operators.

“This is the second deadly incident in a little over a month in this area of the state. These incidents are unacceptable to me, and they should be to all Coloradans,” said Colorado House Majority Leader KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat. “Every person who works for an oil and gas company and ever family who lives in proximity to a drilling operation deserves to know they are safe at work and at home.”

Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, also Friday called for the COGCC and other appellants not to appeal a recent state Court of Appeals decision in the Martinez case concerning environmental health and oil and gas operations.

“Both the industry and policy makers of all political stripes have an obligation to treat these incidents not as isolated or freak accidents, but as indicators that we must do more now—we must take real, concrete steps—for Coloradans to have confidence that deadly explosions and fires won't occur in the future,” Foote said.

He was one of the sponsors of a last-minute bill in the Legislature aimed at overseeing oil and gas operations. Republicans killed the bill before it could be sent to the governor's desk.

The Sierra Club said the oil and gas industry “cannot be trusted” to ensure public safety and called for more federal oversight in oil and gas operations.

Their statements also came as a class-action lawsuit was filed against Anadarko by shareholders who say the company failed to disclose its knowledge of risks involving its vertical wells in Colorado, and as a natural gas leak was discovered in an underground storage facility in Logan County, forcing all residents within a 2-mile radius to evacuate.

The well is being shut in to stop the flow of the gas, and will monitor the site 24 hours a day until the shut-in is complete.

The company that owns the well, East Cheyenne Gas Storage, says it is reimbursing people who had to evacuate for all their expenses.

Denver7's Jennifer Kovaleski contributed to this report.