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Colorado announces $18.25 million fine against driller in fatal 2017 Firestone home explosion

The penalty was announced by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a news conference

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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)

Colorado oil and gas regulators on Thursday announced they are seeking an $18.25 million fine against a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum for its role in a 2017 home explosion in Firestone that killed two men.

Kerr McGee, the Occidental subsidiary, can appeal the fine in a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing process. But the company told The Colorado Sun that it won’t challenge the penalty.

“This is the largest penalty ever sought by COGCC by more than 11 times,” the agency’s Executive Director Jeff Robbins, said. “However, due to the violations and the loss of lives, COGCC believes this is appropriate.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The blast was caused by odorless natural gas that leaked into the home from a severed pipeline attached to a nearby oil and gas well. The well was dormant until just months before the explosion. Federal investigators found the pipeline was likely severed in 2015, during construction of the home.

The April 17, 2017, explosion killed Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin. It has been a central focus of the debate on oil and gas safety in Colorado, inspiring new rules and legislation. Martinez’s wife, Erin, was seriously injured in the explosion.

The penalty was announced Thursday during a news conference. Robbins called the fine “fair, responsible and appropriate” and said he is hopeful regulators will be approve the full amount.

Jeff Robbins, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, speaks to reporters on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Kerr McGee is now an Occidental subsidiary, but at the time of the explosion, it was owned by Anadarko Petroleum. Anadarko was acquired by Houston-based Occidental last year in a $55 billion deal.

Occidental on Thursday said it would not challenge the fine.

“We are mindful of the events of April 17, 2017, every day, and our thoughts continue to be with the families, friends and communities affected by the Firestone tragedy,” Occidental spokeswoman Jennifer Brice said. “We respect the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s role in investigating this tragedy, and we will not contest the fines, nor the violations.”

The COGCC alleges that Kerr McGee failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent pipeline failures and leakage and that it failed to ensure each abandoned pipeline was disconnected from its natural gas source.

The fine is so large because of the deaths that the explosion caused.

Kerr McGee now must formally respond to the COGCC. The commission will then consider the penalty at an April 6 hearing Erin Martinez said she plans to attend.

The COGCC says the Martinez family was consulted as part of their pursuit of the fine. Erin Martinez said in a written statement Thursday that she is grateful for the agency’s work.

“No amount of penalty or fine is ever going to take away our immense pain and suffering nor bring Mark and Joey back,” she wrote. “We have to wake up every morning and go to bed every night living with this horrific nightmare.  Our lives are forever changed. It is hard to comprehend that the only recourse is a penalty or a fine, how do you put a price on human life? However, legally that is all that can be done.”

If the penalty goes through, the money is slated to go toward projects focusing on flowline and air emissions monitoring.

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