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Decision to allow homes to be built near oil and gas drilling facilities contributed to fatal Firestone blast, NTSB says

Federal investigators found that the severed natural gas pipeline that caused the blast likely had been cut during 2015 construction of the same house it later destroyed

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Before-and-after photos of the home in Firestone that was destroyed in a 2017 explosion caused by a nearby oil and gas well. The NTSB said a contributing factor to the incident was local officials’ decision to allow homes to be built near oil and gas drilling facilities without knowing where buried pipelines were. (NTSB photos)

The decision by local officials to allow homes to be built on land near oil and gas drilling facilities without complete knowledge of buried pipelines in the area contributed to the fatal explosion of a house in Firestone in 2017, federal investigators say.

“Contributing to the accident was the approval by local authorities to allow occupied structures to be built on land adjacent to or previously part of oil and gas production fields without complete documentation from the operator, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, on the location and status of its gathering system pipelines,” the National Transportation Board said in a seven-page, final report on the blast released this month. 

The NTSB also found that the severed natural gas pipeline that caused the blast likely had been cut in 2015, during construction of the same house it later destroyed. 

Three severed pipelines were found beneath a concrete pad about six feet from the home’s foundation, the NTSB said, all of which were originally connected to nearby natural gas wells. 

Only one of those three pipes, however, was still connected to a well near the residence. The well — initially drilled by Gerrity Oil and Gas, then purchased by Patina Oil and Gas Corporation and eventually bought in 2013 by Anadarko Petroleum — had been dormant until less than three months before the explosion.

(Provided by the NTSB)

The Firestone explosion was directly caused by odorless natural gas that had seeped from the severed pipeline into the basement of a home owned by Mark and Erin Martinez. The house was lifted off of its foundation and rearranged into a fiery pile of debris when the gas ignited.

MORE: Read the NTSB report.

“It is important that pipeline owners and operators maintain and distribute accurate information on the location of pipelines since inadvertent strikes during construction and excavation work is a leading cause of pipeline damage and accidents,” the NTSB said.

The April 17, 2017, explosion in Firestone, which killed Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joe Irwin, has been a central focus of the debate on oil and gas safety in Colorado. It was one of the driving factors behind Democrats’ measure rewriting state drilling regulations, Senate Bill 181, passed during this year’s legislative session. 

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)

Mark Martinez and Irwin were replacing a water heater in the basement of the Martinezes’ home when the blast happened. Investigators have said they did not contribute to the tragedy.

Erin Martinez, who was severely injured in the explosion, has pushed for better mapping of oil and gas flowlines in the state. The Denver Post, however, reported recently that the state’s underground pipelines are still not fully mapped after then-Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered them mapped after the Firestone explosion.

In a statement released Tuesday, Erin Martinez said she was disappointed by the NTSB report “in its brevity and lack of any recommendations whatsoever to protect public safety and prevent further tragedy.”

“As I’ve said many times since I lost my husband and brother: ‘With great tragedy should come great change,'” the statement said. “The NTSB report clearly doesn’t acknowledge the horrific nature of my family’s loss, nor does it provide any guidance for preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

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)

The NTSB says the final report is expected to be their final word on the blast.

“As you may know the NTSB conducts very thorough and methodical safety investigations,” NTS spokesman Keith Holloway told The Colorado Sun. “In the report the NTSB determines the probable cause and provide information as to how that caused was determined. NTSB is not a regulatory agency so the safety investigation highlights the safety issues as a result of this investigation. No further action is expected at this time.”

Senate Bill 181 requires better flowline and leak detection requirements. As part of that mandate, rulemaking by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission related to the management of flowlines, abandoned wells, and the inspection of shut-in wells before they are returned to production is scheduled to begin Nov. 19 in Greeley.

In Broomfield, new construction permits in a neighborhood in the Anthem Highlands subdivision are being withheld while COGCC Orphaned Well program mitigates natural gas leaking from a plugged and abandoned well. The leak was detected by the city’s soil and gas testing program.


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