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Energy & Industry
When your neighborhood goes boom
How site workers and firefighters responding to a 2017 natural gas explosion in Windsor, Colorado, narrowly avoided disaster.
Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz
Image credit: Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune
Oct. 19, 2018 From the print edition
PART ONE: CHAOS ON THE VERGE OF CATASTROPHE
A few days before Christmas last year, a dispatcher for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office was working through a routine set of calls, ranging from missing cats and parking ticket warrants to domestic disturbances, drunk drivers and a possibly armed meth-head menacing a neighbor. Then, at 8:48 p.m., came a jarring alert: The Windsor Severance Fire Rescue frequency reported a unit “responding to an explosion at an oil well site.”
It was 32 degrees and clear on Dec. 22, 2017. A thin, fresh blanket of snow covered Windsor, Colorado, an increasingly suburban community about 60 miles north of Denver. The dispatcher’s tones scrambled rural firefighters more accustomed to grass fires and car accidents than an explosion at a hydrocarbon factory. Stress levels skyrocketed as the first responders described the scene over their radios.
“We’ve got oil burning from an oil fracking truck,” one said, reading the operator’s name from a sign: “Extraction Oil. Extraction.”
“I can see flames about 30 feet in the air, and smoke.”
More than 350 homes were within a mile of the site, and 911 calls from residents flooded the switchboard. The Greeley Police Department emergency call center summed up a report: “Heard big boom. Shook the house. Looks like an oil rig is on fire. Can see flames.”
The first engine laid down two hoses and called for another 2,000-gallon water tender, but the incident commander realized that with so much flammable material, they’d need specialized foam concentrate designed to smother hydrocarbon fires. “Water’s not going to put the fire out,” he said over the radio. “Our best bet is to cool everything around it until we can get foam.”
Karley Robinson, a 25-year-old medical assistant, was playing Dungeons & Dragons at home with her husband and brother when they were shaken back to reality by a huge “boom.” They stepped outside to see the night illuminated, flames shooting skyward, flashing lights rushing to the scene. Robinson figured it was coming from the massive oil and gas site less than a mile away. But then she remembered the well-pad complex, sitting just 130 feet from her kitchen window.
Robinson’s 5-year-old daughter padded up to her parents. “Mommy, is everything going to be OK?” she asked.
Robinson reassured her daughter, “I think everything’s going to be OK.” Still, she called Extraction Oil and Gas, the operator of the exploded well, and left a message: “Hey, I’m right down the street from where one of your rigs blew up.” Even though a different operator owned her backyard wells, she hoped for “some assurance that my house wouldn’t explode.”
It’s a situation that could unfold in any of the dozens of Western communities that have been stampeded by drilling rigs during the latest oil and gas boom: An inferno fueled by toxic, flammable hydrocarbons in backyards, near schools and baseball fields and suburban dwellings. The potential for catastrophe has grown especially high in neighborhoods like Robinson’s. Nearly half of Colorado’s 55,000 active wells are in Weld County, where Robinson lives and thousands more are on their way. Locals call it “Welled County.”
Robinson’s D&D campaign sat abandoned on the kitchen table while she comforted her daughter. But the phone never rang.
When Windsor Severance Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Todd Vess heard the blast, he thought something had fallen in his basement; that’s how close it sounded. The department’s alert system flashed “oil and gas explosion” on his phone, but at first Vess wasn’t too concerned. Dispatchers received plenty of false alarms regarding drilling sites, especially concerning the fiery nighttime flaring of excess fuel.
Another battalion chief called and told Vess this was the real deal: Flames were consuming an oil and gas site, and a trauma unit was on its way. Vess calmly “prepared for the worst” as more than a dozen neighboring fire districts and regional airport rescue squads converged on the Stromberger well pad with fire engines, water tenders, and trucks carrying firefighting foam. Responders reported flames at least 50 feet high. One firefighter called in for directions and received some deadpan guidance over his radio:
“You’re not gonna miss this, Joe.”
Flames erupt from an Extraction Oil and Gas well site in Windsor, Colorado, after an explosion that injured one worker.
Fox 31/2 News video capture from Dec. 22, 2017
On the well pad site, every oil worker’s nightmare flashed to life with the first terrifying explosion. The crew had been conducting “flowback operations,” probably the most dangerous stage of oil and gas development. After drilling, operators “complete” the well via hydraulic fracturing, or pumping a mixture of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure to release hydrocarbons from tight rock formations more than a mile underground. Afterwards, the fracking fluids, along with other toxic chemicals, dissolved solids and heavy metals flow back to the surface at high pressure. The liquids are sorted, stored and eventually moved off-site. The Stromberger facility, which sprawled across an area larger than eight football fields, contained 19 flowing wells, along with an assortment of other industrial apparatus, much of it filled or flowing with a salty, flammable chemical and hydrocarbon stew.
“Do an emergency shut in. SHUT IN NOW!” supervisors yelled, desperate to ensure that no more oil and gas leaked out and caused an even bigger blast.
“It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”
—Ernie Bouldin, supervisor for one of Extraction Oil and Gas’ contractors
Workers darted around frantically, shutting off valves, with some of them wielding fire extinguishers. Ernie Bouldin, 57, a supervisor for one of Extraction’s contractors, Colter Energy, who was on-site that night, said that the workers’ quick action helped avoid the worst-case scenario. If they hadn’t shut everything down, Bouldin later said, “It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”
Pressurized pipelines popped beneath their feet and heat singed their coveralls on the freezing night. As workers hustled to shut valves before heading to a designated “muster” area, two of them saw a figure silhouetted against the flames. Houston “Ty” Pirtle staggered aimlessly, arms hanging awkwardly by his sides. They rushed over and heard him wheezing through a damaged airway. That’s when the chilling reality sunk in: The explosion had touched one of their own.
Picture Caption: Karley Robinson with her newborn baby outside her home in Windsor. She heard the “boom” and saw the ensuing inferno from the Stromberger well explosion last December.
Ted Wood/The Story Group
Denver media and official reports portrayed the events of that winter night as a quickly contained fire that posed little danger to the public or the environment. But first responder dispatch tapes not made public until now, along with newly released documents and interviews with workers, experts and first responders, paint a darker picture, one of chaos on the verge of catastrophe.
The Windsor explosion highlights what many neighbors wonder: Who is looking out for their safety? Neither the state agency overseeing the oil and gas industry nor the health and environment department conducted an independent investigation of the disaster or its environmental impact. The only fine levied was a small one against an on-site contractor for workplace safety violations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, issued a “Notice of Alleged Violation” against Extraction in August, which has the “potential to result in a penalty.” But no penalty has been announced. And even as Extraction Oil and Gas acknowledges that it still doesn’t know exactly what happened in Windsor, the company continues to receive approval to drill more wells in even more densely populated towns.
Nevertheless, fallout from the incident continues to ripple across the state, particularly along the Front Range, where drilling rigs are popping up in backyards while brand-new housing developments sprout next to old oil and gas fields. It’s become a rallying point in an intense campaign around a November ballot measure that would require oil and gas wells to be located farther away from homes and schools.
The incident also reminded Robinson, the young mother, that she may have traded her family’s safety for the low cost of their home. Robinson just had her second child in August, a boy born four weeks premature, and now it’s always on her mind.
“I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette with my family,” she said.
Herb Brady, former chief of Windsor Severance Fire Rescue, stands for a portrait in Houston, Texas, where he now works for an EMS vehicle manufacturer.
Jeff Lautenberger for High Country News
In his eight years as fire chief for the city of Windsor, Herb Brady had watched the steady encroachment of oil and gas wells on new subdivisions, and vice-versa. He had become accustomed to gratefully receiving the “baubles and trinkets” the energy companies offered his rural fire department, including expensive gas monitors and financial donations. He thought “fracktivists” bent on shutting down the industry were hysterical troublemakers.
The Stromberger explosion reshaped his worldview.
Now living in Houston, the 55-year-old said he sees how industry money manipulates public opinion and local politicians, projecting a false aura of competence and oversight over “petrochemical plants in people’s backyards.” The industry wields influence throughout Colorado, blocking even modest legislative reforms, pressuring regulators and using the courts to get huge tax breaks and intimidate opponents. Brady now recognizes what he calls his “detrimental reliance” on state and federal agencies that oversee the industry. “I always thought that the COGCC and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) were on top of things, and all I had to do was do my job.”
Now, he said, “The public has a right to be concerned. It is a dangerous situation.”
For Brady, seeing that firefighters responding that night lacked the necessary protective gear and training underscored just how unprepared rural departments are for an event of this magnitude. “It was just a roll of the dice, the fact that nobody died. We were lucky.”
Ernie Bouldin, oil and gas contractor, now retired on medical leave.
Ted Wood/The Story Group
Right before the blast, the Stromberger crew of 13 “flow-back operations assistants” and three supervisors ticked through their routine rounds, inspecting the wells and aboveground storage tanks, 23 separators, seven combustors and miles of piping around the site. Bouldin, one of the site supervisors on duty, said the workers were “like family” to each other, even as they bitched about the cold and the long hours.
Bouldin, who is on medical retirement unrelated to his oil and gas work, spoke on the record about the explosion; another worker spoke with a promise of anonymity because he still works in the industry. Others relayed through intermediaries that they were told not to speak to journalists, or that they “don’t want to relive it again.” Pirtle and his family did not respond to multiple interview requests, although they did share information publicly as he was convalescing.
Houston Pirtle was known for being a hard worker, the kind you’d want on your team. With less than a year of experience, the 6-foot-tall, 190-pound man was still a “green hat” on the Stromberger site. According to a social media post from his mother, Pirtle had been through some rough patches in his personal life recently, but the Colter job provided stability and good pay (employees typically start at $16 an hour, plus a per diem). The weeks-long blocks of work, sometimes 14 hours a day, were tough, but things were looking up for the 26-year-old, his wife, Rachel Darrah, and their two toddlers.
That night, Pirtle was working in a shack and making hourly rounds to monitor the levels, pressure and temperature readings for the valves, flow-back storage tanks and separators. The generator that powered his shack’s light and a nearby portable heater had been acting up lately. A sensor is supposed to shut the generator down if it detects unsafe gas levels, but it kept blinking off, seemingly at random. Repairmen had repeatedly tried troubleshooting it, but hadn’t replaced it.
The troublesome generator, which was not “spark-proof,” was placed about 10 feet from the trailer, much closer than the 100 feet recommended to reduce fire risk under best industry practices by the American Petroleum Institute. Everyone knew that was a bad idea, but it’s one of the many small concessions that complex sites make to keep running. Elsewhere, a flameless heater, which also was not “spark-proof,” had been moved to within about 10 feet of the flow-back storage tanks to keep a set of pipes warm on frigid winter nights. Wires and pipes weren’t arranged as neatly as usual, creating a high-octane obstacle course. No Extraction employees were on-site, but company spokesman Brian Cain said “an experienced contractor” served as a company representative.
Extraction’s accident report filed with the COGCC does not identify a root cause for the explosion, but the investigations support one theory. According to an OSHA investigative report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a third-party forensic team that Extraction hired after the fact found leaks in piping designed to contain hydrocarbon gas emitted from the flow-back storage tanks. Leaked gas may have pooled in a corner surrounded on two sides by 32-foot-high, flesh-colored sound barriers, trapped close to the ground by an inversion of cold air.
The balky generator went out, possibly because the gas sensor triggered a shutdown. Pirtle’s trailer went dark, so he bundled up to go check on it.
Once there’s a pool of gas, any spark can light it. When Pirtle tried to restart the generator, something — the engine kicking on, two pipes scraping together, a bit of static from a fleece jacket — provided that spark. The tank went up in a fireball in an earth-shaking blast, sending the workers scrambling to protect the site. Smaller explosions set off other fires around the site, threatening to spread into a chain reaction of flame.
“If you don’t shut those off right away, a lot of people are going to die.”
—Ernie Bouldin, supervisor for one of Extraction Oil and Gas’ contractors
Even though the workers trained daily for such an emergency, Bouldin said the true test for any crew only comes in the face of real fire. “None of them ran,” he said proudly. Bouldin, three hours into his 13-hour shift, was 150 feet from the exploded tank. Alert workers darted around to manually close ball and wheel valves to stop the hydrocarbons flowing to tanks and through the miles of pipes around the site. “If you don’t shut those off right away,” Bouldin said, “a lot of people are going to die.”
The blast badly burned Pirtle’s hands and face and seared his windpipe. Two workers carried him away and applied cream from an on-site first aid kit to his second- and third-degree burns, while supervisors kept a running headcount. Bouldin sped his pickup truck through “ungodly” heat and helped hoist Pirtle into the cab. An ambulance met them at the edge of the site to take the injured man to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.
The rest of the crew was taken to a nearby hotel, where many of the men stayed during their 28-day-on, 14-day-off shifts, for a standard emergency debriefing, then returned to the well pad to meet their worried families.
Bouldin acknowledged that there were “things (Extraction) should have fixed,” but said that ultimately they were small issues. “We wouldn’t have done it if we thought it would have put anyone in danger,” he said.
Jason Brooks, general manager for U.S. operations for Colter Energy, which is headquartered in Canada, said the company would “not reply to any inquiries surrounding the fire.” Extraction spokesman Cain said in an email that the company “considers safety to be our utmost priority and our record of operations in this basin reflects that commitment.”
Even though he’s not in the field anymore, Bouldin still wakes up at night thinking about what happened to his younger co-worker. “He got burned pretty danged good,” Bouldin said. “We were pretty tore up about that.”
Bouldin’s voice faltered when asked if his mind had changed about how the site was managed. “Right now,” he said, “I’d tell you this was unacceptable.”
The GoFundMe page for Houston “Ty” Pirtle, who was badly burned in the explosion.
The Windsor explosion and its aftermath reflect an unnerving aspect of life under the latest — and largest — oil and gas boom to hit the West, whether in Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico, Utah or here on Colorado’s Front Range. Over the past two decades, new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques have allowed the industry to access oil and gas locked up in deep shale formations and to cluster multiple wells on single pads. They’ve concentrated these mini-industrial sites closer to communities, taking advantage of laws and regulations put into place during earlier demographic and technological eras. As Colorado’s population has increased from 4.3 million to more than 5.6 million since 1999, the number of active oil and gas wells over the same time period has increased from less than 22,000 to almost 55,000 today — a 150 percent increase.
Picture Caption: Zoom out to view wells in all stages of development and production on Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s 5.6 million people live. Colorado Oil and Gas Commission data compiled by The Denver Post via CARTO
These twin growth spurts mean that large drilling operations and vast residential developments are spreading like competing invasive species, often right on top of each other. Subdivisions near the exploded Stromberger pad sport bucolic names like “Peakview Estates,” “Greenspire” and the ironic “Windmill Homes.” Meanwhile, residents deal with constant thumping sounds, foul smells, industrial lights and toxic emissions from fracking operations a Frisbee-toss away from backyard play areas.
Fearful and frustrated citizens in towns from Lafayette to Loveland and beyond have educated themselves about arcane subsurface mineral rights law while fighting for greater local control. Some cities passed fracking bans, which were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Two months before the Windsor explosion, nine local governments signed a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, stating: “There is a large and growing consensus that this intensive industrial activity does not belong in residential neighborhoods, near schools or hospitals, or in close proximity to drinking water supplies.”
Even some industry officials have publicly stated that safety issues are getting short shrift. Citing former executives saying that top management had de-emphasized safety considerations, Anadarko shareholders filed a class action suit late last year, claiming the company’s Colorado operations were a “ticking time bomb.”
When Battalion Chief Vess arrived on the scene, small explosions rocked the chilly night as pockets of pressure blew and ignited. The firefighters approached the fire as they would any other, sending firefighters and engines as close to the burning equipment as seemed prudent. The incident commander determined that Engine 1 would be their “line in the sand” at what seemed like a safe distance from the facility.
With flammable fluid still leaking and the danger of re-ignition high, firefighters couldn’t extinguish the blaze with water. So they started calling in specialized firefighting foam from regional responders, companies and local airports.
Extraction employees arrived on-site, urging firefighters to protect the well heads and warning them about new hazards. Firefighters relayed the information to Command. At one point, a “little house” near Engine 7 was Extraction’s “primary concern” because it contained valves that checked the back pressure. “If that goes, all the back pressure’s going to go.”
New events raised more alarms. “The separator is something that’s at high risk,” said a voice on the radio. “We need to get some water on that quickly.”
Smaller explosions continued to go off. A voice broke in over the firefighter frequency, relaying a message from Extraction’s liaison: “We’ve got a serious hazard behind the green heaters on the east side where the real heavy black smoke is coming up. He described those as ‘bombs.’ If they go, then we’re all getting hurt.”
Another explosion, and the tone of the communications took on more urgency. The incident commander took over. “We need to pull our people back. Everybody pull back. We’re going emergency traffic. All units pull back to a safe location. Behind the command post. All units begin clearing out. You guys get your people and your engine out of there, now.”
One of the firefighters wanted to make sure that he heard correctly, because there was no way to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment without sending personnel closer to the burning site. “If you want apparatus, we’re going to have to make another trip back in.”
“That’s negative. Go ahead and just get your people out.”
Two firefighters started to go back in anyway, trying to retrieve equipment. The incident commander ordered them to stop.
“All units, from command,” he said. “We’re abandoning the site. We’re letting it go.”
The Stromberger site as it looks today, after remediation from the 2017 explosions and fire.
Ted Wood/The Story Group
PART TWO: THE AFTERMATH
Water tenders and trucks kept arriving, bearing 265-gallon “totes” of foam in 4-by-4-foot tanks and 55-gallon drums, requiring a ratio of 97 parts water to three parts foam. Initially, water supply was tight. It took five minutes to drive each way to the closest hydrant and five minutes to fill each tender, plus waiting time as drivers lined up for their turns. Firefighters called around for a second water source, and at one point sought a highway flare to thaw a frozen connection to a second hydrant. Extraction, which has contracts for emergency water, trucked in more in 18-wheelers.
Uncertain about how soon the fires would be contained and lacking specialized expertise even in well-heavy Colorado, Extraction called in Houston-based Wild Well Control, a company that’s responded to oil disasters from Kuwait to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A crew mobilized in Texas but didn’t arrive on-site until daybreak.
All night long, firefighters kept a steady stream of foam and water aimed at the facility. Eventually, the abandoned equipment was no longer in danger. Firefighters worked throughout the next morning, monitoring flames that occasionally licked up and popped like bottle rockets.
Firefighters ended up using more than 3,500 gallons of foam. Retired Fire Chief Brady said that figure doesn’t include an undisclosed amount that was rounded up from private sources, including other energy companies like Noble Energy. Windsor Severance Fire only had two totes. “We used pretty much all the foam in northern Colorado,” Brady recalled, leaving many first responders without any on hand after the fire. Replacement foam had to be trucked in from Texas.
The specification sheets for the foams state that they contain anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of some form of ethylene glycol, a major component of antifreeze, plus an undisclosed percentage of “proprietary” materials that contain chemicals known as PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” they are long-lasting in groundwater and of concern to public health officials and oil and gas industry operators alike. They have been notably linked to contamination near Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base and other military sites.
During the night, a mixture of water and firefighting foam began flowing towards the site perimeter. Firefighters brought earth-moving equipment in to contain the runoff. Brady said that a “caravan” of big trucks brought in by Extraction were loaded with the runoff and carted away. Extraction refuses to say where the material was disposed of, and the state does not require such a disclosure. Extraction’s Cain said in an email: “The material was taken to a licensed commercial disposal facility. That’s all I have to share.”
Ultimately, Extraction Oil and Gas “remediated” the Stromberger site by carting away 406 tons of dirt over a week in April, according to manifests filed with the COGCC. They deposited that dirt in the North Weld County landfill, a clay-lined facility that does not accept hazardous waste. The soil was classified as “Non-regulated solid: E&P Contaminated Soil” on a “non-hazardous manifest.”
That nonspecific description of “Exploration and Production” wastes exemplifies the opaque regulations governing the industry. In 2002, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency reclassified fluids emitted from oil and gas drilling operations as non-toxic waste that did not need to be reported. These wastes include produced water containing multiple contaminants, as well as drilling fluids, stimulation fluids, liquid hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon-bearing soil.
The so-called shale revolution took off, and reclassification soon led to exemption. In 2005, then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s “Energy Task Force” led to legislation that exempted hydraulic fracturing fluids from every major federal environmental law.
Doc Nyiro, environmental protection manager for Waste Management, which operates the North Weld landfill, wrote that firefighting foam-contaminated soil is acceptable at the site. Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the COGCC said there is no requirement to report the use of firefighting foam, nor to test for related chemicals when companies dump potentially contaminated soil in landfills.
As one consequence, Health Department spokesman Mark Salley wrote in an email, “The extent of PFAS contamination in Colorado’s groundwater is unknown.”
A screen capture from television news footage shows a Firestone, Colorado, home fully engulfed by flames in April 2017. Two men died and a woman was severely injured in the fire, which was caused by a leak in an underground pipeline.
YouTube Video capture from Denver7
Colorado’s most infamous gas explosion occurred on April 17, 2017, when a leak in an underground pipeline exploded a suburban home in Firestone, less than 25 miles north of the Denver city limits. The blast killed two men, Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law, Joe Irwin, and severely burned Martinez’s wife, Erin.
It was followed by a flurry of “never-again” statements. Though Colorado has not seen another household explosion, natural gas infrastructure continues to pose dangers around the country. In January this year, five workers were killed in an oil well explosion in Oklahoma. In September, explosions linked to natural gas pipelines killed one person and destroyed several homes in three Boston neighborhoods, just a week after a western Pennsylvania town was evacuated for its own pipeline fire.
The Windsor blast is a reminder that the hazard remains high, stoking the fears of communities potentially in harm’s way. According to a 2017 study by the Colorado School of Public Health that analyzed state accident reports, there were 116 reported fires or explosions at Colorado oil and gas sites between 2006 and 2015 — an average of almost one per month. But those numbers only reflect incidents covered by the state’s reporting requirements at the time, which, as the authors noted, were less stringent than those in Utah, a state hardly renowned for its strict environmental rules.
Until recently, Colorado only required companies to report explosions and fires if they resulted in an injury to the general public that required medical treatment, or if there was “significant damage” to a well or equipment, a judgment left to the operator’s discretion.
The authors say the number of actual fires and explosions in Colorado likely would be almost two and half times higher — more than one incident every two weeks — if the state had stronger reporting requirements. They noted: “The increased size and complexity of operations at multi-well pads will likely continue in the future, particularly in urban and suburban areas, increasing the potential risk for those living and working in close proximity to these sites.”
“The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”
—Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees COGCC, said, “Any spill or fire is one too many, and we continue to work hard to reduce those events.” Hartman added that with more than 55,000 active wells in the state, 116 accidents is “equal to one event every 1,573,276 well/days,” or days a well is operated. “The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”
Still, operators have reported more than 40 fires and explosions at oil and gas facilities since the end of 2015, when the Colorado School of Public Health team stopped their data analysis — more than one a month. The incident descriptions are often vague and are buried in the COGCC’s difficult-to-navigate website. Several incidents caused fatalities, including an oil tank battery explosion in Mead a month after Firestone, which killed one worker and injured three.
State oil and gas inspector Mike Leonard, who was on the scene in Windsor that night, says people outside the industry tend to conflate the causes of these oil and gas accidents. “What happened at Windsor is not what happened at Firestone,” Leonard said. “It’s not what happened at Mead.”
Those distinctions may indeed be lost on Colorado communities where wellpads and infrastructure loom over houses and schools. Whatever the cause of individual explosions and fires, keeping neighborhoods safe poses a daunting challenge for under-resourced first responders. “Nobody is really talking much about the low-probability, high-consequence events,” said Don Whittemore, a former assistant fire chief for Rocky Mountain Fire and an internationally recognized expert on disaster response. “Your average Joe Firefighter isn’t prepared for these kinds of events.”
In February 2018, partly in response to the Firestone tragedy, COGCC tightened its reporting requirements to include “any accidental fire, explosion, or detonation, or uncontrolled release of pressure.” A bill to make those agency rules permanent passed the Democrat-controlled state House last session. But industry officials opposed the bill, and the Republican-controlled state Senate killed it.
Concerns about oil and gas development go well beyond explosions. The same gases that fueled the Windsor explosion can also harm human health and the climate.
Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet more quickly than carbon dioxide, can leak during the extraction and transportation of oil and gas. It is often accompanied by volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a major contributor to the ozone problem in Colorado, where some areas have violated federal ozone health standards for years. Studies from around the country have linked proximity to those emissions with multiple health and environmental impacts, including increased cancer risks and adverse birth outcomes. According to COGCC, there were 17,254 detected leaks in 2017 from compressors, pressure relief devices, pump seals and other sources. (Most were repaired.)
In Colorado, those oil-and-gas-related VOCs aren’t being adequately measured. The Windsor explosion brought that into sharp relief. Detlev Helmig, a scientist at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research, ran an air-monitoring station in Boulder tracking levels of known carcinogens like benzene and toluene. A Windsor resident emailed Helmig after the blast, wondering if his monitors had picked up anything. If enough gas had leaked to cause a well-pad fireball, they wondered, couldn’t there be toxic levels of benzene in the air?
Helmig was stunned to see sharp spikes in ethane and benzene levels that night, the highest levels measured before or since. “With very, very high certainty,” Helmig said, there was a huge release of gases in the hours before the explosion. Given the wind patterns at the time, the gases most likely came from the direction of Windsor, but because Helmig’s monitor is about 40 miles away from the explosion site — and there’s not a similar monitor closer — the exact source couldn’t be pinpointed.
In August, Boulder County’s funding for Helmig’s monitoring station ran out.
In this case, Helmig believes, what people don’t know can hurt them.
“There’s an expectation that changes in regulations will cause improvements to air quality. But the only way to know is to measure,” he said. The state health and environment agency, Helmig says, “doesn’t seem to have the resources or the interest.”
A well pad near a subdivision in Windsor, Colorado.
Ted Wood/The Story Group, for High Country News
PART THREE: THE FIRESTONE NEXT TIME
Industry advocates acknowledge the dangers of oil and gas work, but prefer to highlight new technology and training that makes it safer. On Aug. 22, at the 30th annual Colorado Oil and Gas Association Energy Summit in Denver, attendees — some sporting “Frack Yeah” ribbons on their badges — talked up their role as “good neighbors.”
COGA distributed pamphlets detailing more than $9 million in donations from members last year. Executives encouraged giving employees paid time off to volunteer, or paying to maintain schools and libraries.
Yet critics continue to push back. The upcoming 2018 election will allow voters to weigh in on one of the most influential policy measures in years. Proposition 112 would require wells to be at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, parks and other buildings, a distance that industry says would severely curtail new production in the state, but advocates say will make neighborhoods safer.
Also on the November ballot is an industry-backed measure, Amendment 74. It would regard any government law or regulation that could have an impact on private property values — including basic zoning codes and subsurface mineral rights — as a “taking” that would require governments to reimburse property owners. The environmental group Conservation Colorado wrote that Amendment 74 would “paralyze state and local governments in their capacity to protect the health and safety of citizens.” The Colorado Municipal League, hardly a firebrand on these issues, circulated a memo exhorting its members to defeat 74 because of its “far reaching and potentially disastrous consequences.”
The oil and gas industry has launched an all-out blitz, fighting the setback initiative and promoting the takings amendment, at times using dubious methods — harassing signature gatherers and spending millions of dollars on public relations campaigns. Chip Rimer, senior vice president of global operations for Noble Energy, told the August COGA conference that the 2018 midterms would be “one of the most influential elections for our industry.” He cited a Common Sense Policy Roundtable report predicting 147,000 lost jobs over 12 years if the setback initiative passed, telling attendees to imagine a town the size of Boulder going dark. “If that doesn’t get your blood boiling,” he urged the crowd, “you’ve got to get your passion up.”
Protect Colorado, a political action committee opposing any ballot initiatives that would limit fossil fuel development, had pulled in more than $30 million in 2018 as of early October, and had spent more than $20 million that year in part on radio, television and digital advertising. Extraction has contributed nearly $3 million this year to Protect Colorado, while Noble Energy and Anadarko have collectively contributed more than $10 million.
At the mid-August COGA conference, Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates — Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton — both stated their opposition to Proposition 112. Even though Polis famously advocated for stricter controls on fracking in the past, including a 2,000-foot setback, he said the latest measure was “simply the wrong solution for Colorado.”
Often lost in the debate are regulations, or the lack thereof, restricting how close new homes can be built to existing oil and gas infrastructure. In Firestone, the exploded house was built just 170 feet from an unregulated and abandoned gas line owned by Anadarko Petroleum, 20 feet further than the required setback in the town.
In Windsor, new homes are supposed to be 350 feet from oil wells. But Karley Robinson’s home ended up less than the distance of an Olympic swimming pool lap from tank batteries and combustors, due to a setback loophole used by developers and energy companies. “Once the plat is approved, the property owner has the right to build,” said Town of Windsor Planning Department Director Scott Ballstadt. “The setbacks don’t apply to building permits.” The wells, in turn, were approved before the houses were all built, meaning that the oil and gas commission’s setback rules apparently didn’t apply. Even if they did apply, the town setbacks are measured from the wellheads, not other oil and gas infrastructure that can leak or explode. This kind of play by housing developers, many of whom lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies, occurs throughout the state.
Randy Ahrens, the mayor of Broomfield, a booming burg halfway between Denver and Boulder, couldn’t get the Windsor blast off his mind. Ahrens had spent six years working in oil and gas, but was skeptical of the industry’s impact on his community, which some residents were starting to call “Doomfield” because of the influx of well permit applications. Extraction had been seeking approval to drill 84 new wells in his town; how could he assure residents that what happened in Windsor wouldn’t happen there?
He still hasn’t gotten a good answer. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission never conducted an independent investigation, instead relying on an accident report from Extraction that failed to identify a “root cause” for the incident. Instead, the company laid out possibilities for the source of the leak (possibly an open valve or a depressurized tank) and the source of the spark, including a vague mention of “unknown worker activities.” The state accepted the filings.
Asked if Extraction’s self-investigation into the Windsor explosion was sufficient, the COGCC’s Leonard said, “Everything they put in that report lines up with what I saw that night.” He explained that the state primarily wants to ensure that another accident like that won’t happen again; inspectors now know to look for where heaters and generators are sited.
The state agency’s authority is limited, so its investigation and any discipline had to focus on Extraction, not on contractors like Colter that may share blame. Industry insiders say that essentially creates a system of plausible deniability, allowing companies to hire contractors for the most dangerous work. “That’s part of the game that gets played,” says Bouldin, the former Colter supervisor. “They keep their fingers out of it so they can blame somebody else.”
Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment says that the cleanup from any oil and gas fire, explosion or spill is not their responsibility.
None of this offered much comfort to Mayor Ahrens, who emailed Extraction’s inconclusive report to staff and voters alike, vowing to push for more information. “At the end of the day,” he said in an interview, “I don’t think they (Extraction) really know what happened.” At one testy city council meeting, Extraction executives walked out when asked about their safety record.
“I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”
—Broomfield, Colorado, Mayor Randy Ahrens, who tried to keep new wells from being drilled in his city
In response to Broomfield’s concerns, Eric Jacobsen, Extraction’s senior vice president of operations, wrote a letter stating that the company had identified probable gas and ignition sources that might have contributed to the Windsor explosion. “Because it is difficult to pinpoint the exact contributing gas or ignition source as the definitive cause of the incident, we have implemented corrective actions that address all of these possible sources in our operations going forward.” Among those: enhanced supervision of flowback operations, better on-site gas monitoring and new contractor training.
Despite Ahrens’ ongoing concerns, state law makes it difficult for Broomfield to say no to new drilling. After Extraction executives originally told Ahrens that Broomfield could receive a million dollars a year in new revenue, Ahrens says he told them, “I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”
As of mid-October, the COGCC had approved 71 new wells in Broomfield.
With his family by his side, Houston Pirtle was stabilized at the hospital. Speaking to CBS Denver on Jan. 3, His wife said that Pirtle’s first words when they removed the tubes from his throat were to ask how she was doing. “That’s just who he is,” Darrah said. “(He) wanted to make sure me and the kids were okay.”
Pirtle’s family had to set up a GoFundMe campaign that raised $11,000 to help keep his wife and two infant children afloat as he recovered. Bouldin, the retired supervisor, splutters with contempt when asked about the way Pirtle was treated. “The big leaders of this chain are too cowardly to step up and take responsibility,” he said.
Pirtle’s family got through his initial convalescence with help from the funds they raised. Within months, Pirtle was back in the field, still physically and mentally scarred. A friend said Pirtle is “up and down.”
OSHA investigated the accident, but the agency’s legal mandate is narrowly focused on worker safety issues, not dangers to the public. It’s even more limited because there are no federal safety standards for oil and gas industry workers. Instead, OSHA relies on “best industry practices” collected by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade group.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean the best practices,” said Richard “Dean” Wingo, a former OSHA regional manager based in Dallas. “The best practices could be beyond what the industry recognizes, but OSHA is not going to hold them to that.”
Colter Energy, the contractor whose workers were on-site, was ultimately cited for a handful of workplace safety violations. OSHA levied a $7,068 fine, but that was negotiated down to just $3,534 for two “serious” violations: keeping the generator and heater too close to a separator.
According to SEC filings, Extraction Oil and Gas listed $8.8 million in net income in the second quarter of 2018, selling 73,563 “barrels of oil equivalent” per day in crude oil and gas. The company’s top two executives earned more than $25 million each in 2016 after it went public. XOG’s stock value has since halved, but the state has approved applications from Extraction and its subsidiaries for nearly 400 wells since October 2017; the companies have nearly 700 more permits pending.
For its role as operator in the Windsor fire, Extraction escaped without a fine from the federal or state government. It did, however, reimburse 13 local government entities a total of $140,013.02 for more than 20 hours of firefighting and support.
The Stromberger well pad’s neighbors, still reeling from that night, realize that they have to live with the risks or pay a high price to move. Heidi Jette, a mother of five who lives within a mile of the blast, said it helped pierce the industry’s assurances that everything is safe. “When you realize everything that’s out there, it’s just scary,” said Jette. “There’s so much that gets brushed under the carpet. Everyone is kind of in denial.”
In the weeks following the fire, former Windsor Fire Chief Brady said his conscience bothered him. “I’m scared for the firefighters, and I’m scared for these communities,” he said. He began sharing his views, but said that nobody wanted to hear them. “Between the lack of information and the cover-up,” he told himself, “I’m done.”
He doesn’t know what will happen if things don’t change. However, he does know that he no longer wants to be responsible for Colorado’s neighborhood oil rush. “Is this situation really OK with the citizens?” he wondered.
“If it is, well, there you go.”
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Daniel Glick is a co-founder of The Story Group. Previously, he worked for Newsweek for 13 years and has also written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine and more than a dozen other periodicals.
Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Science, HuffPost, 5280, Undark, National Journal, Ars Technica, Industry Dive and Greenwire. He was a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.
Glick, Plautz and photographer Ted Wood are members of The Story Group, an independent, multimedia journalism company based in Boulder. TSG produces print and video stories for publications and electronic media, focusing on environmental and resource issues in the West.
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This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.