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Colorado lawmakers are using the deadly Firestone explosion as a fulcrum for change — just as Erin Martinez wanted

Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed in the 2017 Firestone home explosion, knew her tragedy would be politicized if she spoke out in support of Senate Bill 181. And the blast has become front and center in the bill's debate.

Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed when their Firestone home exploded in 2017 because of a leak from a nearby oil and gas well, lobbies for tougher oil and gas regulations at an event Feb. 28, 2019, at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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As the omnibus oil and gas regulation bill made its way through the Colorado Senate this week, stoking highly charged, partisan debate, Republicans complained when Democrats brought up the deadly 2017 explosion at a Firestone home.

But sitting in the wings outside the chamber’s floor was Erin Martinez, the woman who lost her husband and brother in the blast. For her, the discussion was going as she expected. It was going as she had planned since waking up in a hospital burn unit in the days after the explosion.

“I’m not being exploited,” she said. “I asked to be involved.”

With her life upended by the force of the blast that lifted her family’s home off its foundation and rearranged it into a fiery pile of debris, Martinez told her mother during her recovery that she wasn’t going to let another family go through what happened to her. That launched her on a journey that recently became public and is loudly making its way through the Colorado General Assembly.

“I can’t just sit back and be OK with what happened,” said Martinez, 41, a science teacher and the mother of a son and daughter.

Now, Martinez and her story have become central to the debate over Senate Bill 181, the most expansive package of new energy industry regulations in decades. She sits through testimony at the Capitol. She writes opinion pieces about her experience. She has even hired a lobbying firm to help her navigate the legislative maze.

Erin Martinez, center, listens as Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference announcing Senate Bill 181. To her left is Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But even though she prepared herself for a painful process, Martinez said she has found it difficult to hear her family’s tragedy invoked by both opponents and proponents of the legislation. “I think that, at times, I’ve let my emotions get the best of me,” she said.

Republicans attempted to distance the legislation from the tragedy during the Senate debate. “You know,” said Sen. Larry Crowder, an Alamosa Republican, “accidents happen.”

Democrats, admitting that there’s a strong chance the current legislation wouldn’t have prevented the explosion, nonetheless used it as a prime example of why more regulation is needed.

“I don’t think anybody can point to this bill and say if it passed several years ago that that tragedy never would have occurred. Nobody could say that with certainty,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who is shepherding the measure through the legislature. “But I also don’t think it’s accurate to say that there’s nothing in this bill that could have addressed it or could have prevented it.”

The Colorado Senate on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, during debate on Senate Bill 181, which would overhaul rules for the oil and gas industry. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

And that’s really Martinez’s hope: That no one else will ever have to go through what she experienced. That no one will lose a husband like Mark or a brother like Joey Irwin.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that Sen. Fenberg and the governor and the Democrats, they didn’t come to me and ask me to get involved and use my story,” she said. “I came to them. I reached out and I said that I wanted to get involved and that I didn’t want to be behind the scenes.”

As Republicans in the state Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday made their case against Senate Bill 181, they rejected arguments from across the aisle that to prevent another tragedy, the measure needed to be passed now and put into effect immediately.

“People are concerned — they should be,” said Sen. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat and major voice in the push for more oil and gas regulation.

That set off a tirade from Republican Sen. Vicki Marble, of Fort Collins.

“I represent Firestone, and I’m getting a little bit tired of the misrepresentation of the explosion that happened and those poor family members being brought into this discussion which has nothing to do with this bill,” Marble said Tuesday.

And then on Wednesday, before the bill passed on a 19-15, party-line vote, she said: “We will always mourn the Martinez family and Firestone will never forget what happened. But they will also never forget what really caused this event, and I don’t think they will ever forget that this has been so politicized.”

State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, in the Colorado Senate chambers on Jan. 4, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What’s been sometimes lost in the debate is the fact that Erin Martinez wanted her story used as a fulcrum in the effort to pass more stringent regulation, feeling it’s the best way to honor her husband and brother. She has been talking with her lawyers for two years on the changes she wants to see in the oil and gas industry.

“We just kind of were waiting for the climate at the Capitol to be for change and, you know, the election happened,” she said, referring to the shift that put Democrats in charge of both legislative bodies and the governor’s office.

Senate Bill 181 now heads to the House, where it’s expected to face several more rounds of fierce debate.

Martinez has stressed that she doesn’t want the oil and gas industry to falter. Her husband worked in it. So did her brother. Her friends make their livelihoods in drilling.

“I think when things go wrong we need to make change,” she said. “I don’t think change needs to be fatal (for the industry). I think we can have jobs and we can have oil and gas in Colorado and we can have it be safe.”

And it’s not just the oil and gas industry she wants to change. She has her eyes on other regulation that could have prevented the tragedy — potentially in real estate and construction.  “This is the first step,” she said. “This is the step to fix things that went wrong with oil and gas in my story.”

Mark Martinez, left, and Joey Irwin. Erin Martinez says the two, killed in a 2017 home explosion in Firestone, were as close as brothers. (Provided by Erin Martinez)

Two or three weeks ago Martinez’s father was getting some work done on his car when he began chatting up the mechanic about the growth in Weld County and rising home prices.

“The guy looked at him and he said, ‘Well, I’m really worried about the property values of my house because those two guys blew themselves up installing a hot water heater,’” she remembered.

For the Martinez family, one of the most difficult parts of the aftermath of the explosion has been the spread of misinformation. Each time someone repeats a false narrative about what happened on April 17, 2017, it undermines the work the family has done to explain to the public what really occurred.

The truth: A severed flow line from a nearby Anadarko well, which had recently been turned back on after a period of dormancy, filtered odorless natural gas into French drains near Martinez’s home and into the basement, where it exploded while Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, both licensed plumbers, were working on a hot water heater.

The Martinez family didn’t know the flow line was there when they bought their home in the Oak Meadows subdivision. The Martinez family had nothing to do with the explosion.

Segment from Denver7, via YouTube.

And now, hearing false statements about her intentions made at the legislature, Erin Martinez feels it all rising to the surface again.

“It’s just so disappointing — and definitely hurtful — for someone to get up there and claim that, basically, this story is being used to gain leverage on the other side when in reality you’re getting up there to say that this has no part in this bill,” Martinez said. “That’s disappointing and that’s hurtful because I got involved because I believe in this bill and I believe that parts in this bill will keep that from happening to someone else.”

Martinez can’t say for sure that Senate Bill 181 would have prevented what happened to her family — but she feels there’s a chance. The legislation mandates that flow line locations be disclosed.

“I can’t go back in time and say that we wouldn’t have bought the home had we known the flow lines were there,” she said. “But I can guarantee you that we definitely would have asked the questions to make sure that having the flow lines six feet from our home was safe. And that would have prompted change.”

The oil and gas industry has been mostly quiet on that front, careful about how it approaches her case.

Martinez sued Anadarko after the explosion and settled. She says she hasn’t met with industry representatives since.

MORE: Judge dismisses shareholder lawsuit against Anadarko filed after deadly Firestone explosion

“I don’t think that they are not deeply, deeply heartbroken about what happened. I know that they are,” she said. “I mean, how could you not be?”

Ultimately, her participation in the debate boils down to everything she lost. She’s simply not willing to stand by and let someone else lose as much.

“We didn’t just lose our home,” she said. “I mean, we lost everything in our house. We lost everything. I don’t even have my wedding ring anymore.”

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