Just Another Whitewash: the Federal Investigation of the Firestone Fracking Fire in Colorado 

After more than two and one half years of delays and excuses the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report this week on the Firestone gas explosion that killed Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, seriously burned Erin Martinez, and traumatized their children.   Mark was Erin’s husband, Joey her brother.  The two men were changing out a hot water heater in the basement of the Martinez home.

If the expectation was a detailed litany of all the terrible public policy decisions made leading up to this disaster, get over it.  Money is king in this state, and the report pays homage to the king.  It is seven pages long with pictures, and produced no information that wasn’t known within days of the explosion caused by a gas leak into the Martinez home from a leaking one inch pipe carrying gas from a well 170 feet from the home.

Erin Martinez, who has undergone a reported 27 surgeries for burns she suffered from the explosion, summed it up in a written statement:

“After all this time, it’s shocking to me that the NTSB gives neither me nor the public anything that we didn’t know prior to the investigation…Whoever authored this document could have released it a short time after my home exploded. It’s difficult to understand why it took two and a half years to write seven pages that provide no concrete recommendations to prevent another tragedy.”

So if we did not learn anything new concerning these murders caused by negligence and greed, what did we learn?

First of all, we learned of the casual indifference with which the official world views these events.  Indeed, we learned first and foremost that in Colorado living unknowingly on top of gas fields is ok.  It is ok with the feds, it is ok with the state, and it is ok with local governments.

Below is a 2015 overhead photo of the explosion site.  It is one of several the state made in its rush to convince people living in the community that the state knew what the hell was going on and that they were on top of it after the April 2017 explosion.  Neither of which is correct.

Photo: COGCC.

+ The overhead photo shows that the entire housing development is surrounded by wells, 6 of them in the immediate area.  (There are many other nearby wells, but they are outside the borders of this photo or have been omitted.)

+ The photo shows that an abandoned flow line runs under the entire development.  This is the same line that was severed near the Martinez home causing the gas buildup in their basement that resulted in its destruction.

+ From earlier photos the well shown as 4 at the top right in this photo was operational in 1999, meaning its flow line was also operational.  The line runs under Founders Park, one of the early community features of the development.

+ The photo shows a home in the upper left with an abandoned well as metal ornament smack dab in the middle of the back yard where all wells should be.

+ The new flow line shown in blue at the bottom of the photo raises several questions.  Why build it right behind a row of 13 homes?  Why not build it farther from the homes along the abandoned flow lines shown in yellow?  The only reasonable answer is that is was cheaper for the industry. Using the old right of way was complicated. An apartment house was being built over it, with another apartment already built near by.  As any fool knows, it is cheaper to build on open land behind homes than fuss with parking lots and large buildings.  Plus the old lines were leaking.  Better to leave them alone.

The overhead photo is also immensely incomplete in its inventory of on the ground fracking facilities.

+ It does not show the flow lines from well 5 and 6, which in 2015 were still operational, and may be to this day.

+ Neither does it show the larger gathering lines that commence at the separator stations, termed “production facilities” on the map.  These lines carry the collected product from the various individual wells to market or re-storage at old abandoned wells.  These lines are much larger, traditionally up to 24 inches, but perhaps even larger today given the development of fracking “mega-pads” with up to 40 wells on a pad.  And yes the industry does pump methane out of the ground to sometimes inject it right back into the ground for storage.

+  The COGCC’s chief of staff, Julie Murphy, claims the COGCC does not have the authority to monitor or regulate gathering lines, even though the SB 181 gives them specific instructions to do so.

+ The overhead does not show the two other leak sites along the yellow, abandoned flow lines at the bottom of the picture.  Both leak areas were near the production facility.  One of the leaks was considerably larger than the leak that caused the explosion.  But it was not contained underground and therefore caused no explosion or deaths.  But Anadarko, the owner of this patchwork of wells and pipelines, did put in an extensive gallery of vents to air the soil of the leaked methane.  It showed no concern that methane’s normal hitchhikers such as benzene may have posed a health problem.

+ The other leak closer to the production facility has simply vanished from the conversation, as has the old open pit evaporation pond that used to lie to the left of the facility until diminished air quality along the northern Front Range forced closure of all open air evaporation ponds because of their significant contribution to the continuing air quality problem.

If the entire witches brew of industry offences to land and people were portrayed on the GOGCC’s overhead map it might start to resemble some sort of nightmarish Boschian allegory on greed and corruption.

Perhaps that is why the NTSB’s site map is so devoid of detail.  It is clearly not designed to help people understand what happened in Firestone.  For example the abandoned line that runs underground for the entire length of the development and caused the deaths of Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin is not even shown.  Inexplicably, it simply stops at the Martinez home. The NTSB’s mandate is not simply to examine pipelines explosions but to promote pipelines safety through detailed analyzes of pipeline events.  Thus, one can reasonably conclude this report represents either breathtaking incompetence or some sort of cover-up.

The depth and breadth of the health and safety problems that urban oil and gas development represent probably can’t be overestimated.   The COGCC map of the Firestone neighborhood is only a microscopic slice of the fossil fuel infrastructure that underlays the oil fields of Colorado.  Multiply this scene thousands of times, for there are at least 100,000 wells, half of them active, populating the state—only then may you begin to understand.

The exact number of wells in the state is difficult to ascertain since wells were first drilled in Colorado in 1860, well before Colorado became a state; yet, well site record keeping didn’t begin until 1925.  That the house Erin Martinez bought after her Firestone home was destroyed turned out to have an old abandoned well right next to her property line underscores the problem.  She was assured by the industry, by the state, and by local governments that the replacement house was safely removed from oil and gas infrastructure.  It wasn’t.  She has been forced to move again for the sake of her family’s sense of well being in what must be considered the cruelest of jokes bred of bumbling bureaucratic incompetency.

The pipeline inventory poses even a greater problem.  After the Firestone explosion, the state required the industry to report their flow line inventories.  Anadarko, the company responsible for the explosion rallied to the proposal, saying it too was adopting a policy it described as an “abundance of caution.”  This hideous public relations effort was undercut by company employees reporting that Anadarko had all along been cutting safety and maintenance oversight to save money in a down market.

The preliminary results of the inventory indicate at least 6,500 miles of flow lines, active and inactive, exist in the state.  That’s enough pipe to crisscross the state 17 times.  Still, the accuracy of this estimate should be regarded with great circumspection.  The former chair of the COGCC, John Benton, himself an executive in a pipeline company, once remarked that it was common to regularly abandon old flow lines and set down new lines depending on production considerations.  He also said it was unnecessary to remove the old ones.  It was too costly to do so and served no necessary purpose.  Well, the Firestone explosion gives the lie to the notion that they posed no problem. Your mother’s warning that if you make a mess, you clean it up answers the second.  Unbelievably the COGCC under its new rulemaking to map all flow lines proposes to leave many lines in the ground.   Of course it’s dealt not at all with the less numerous but larger and therefore more dangerous gathering lines.

Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow that “if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”  What the Firestone tragedy really exposes is that we’ve been asking a question that is only half a question, and getting an answer that is only half an answer.

We have been focused on can fracking be made safe with better setbacks, and what might those setbacks be?   The answer is a clear no, it can’t be made safe particularly in an age of climate chaos where we all are being asked to carry our own weight.  Colorado as one of the leading oil and gas producers in the country has a heavy wagon to pull, and much to atone for.

But there is a companion question that is rarely asked and would remain valid even if the ruling class were to shed its corporate blindfolds and take on the adult job of banning fracking to save those to come from a Hobbesian world that climate collapse will inevitably bring.

The question is, should homes and schools be built over oil fields?  The Firestone tragedy provides the answer.  And no amount of political babble can change it.

Thus, any serious law making in this state must condemn the common practice of allowing developers to come in right after the frackers and build homes and communities on top of or next door to oil and gas development.

Here is the text of an advertisement for the Oak Meadows development in which the Martinez family staked its future.

Century Communities’ Oak Meadows community in Firestone is an established neighborhood known for its strong sense of community. Close-proximity to popular local amenities such as Saddleback Golf Club, St. Vrain State Park, the Regional Sports Complex, and beautiful Settlers’ Park, located within the Oak Meadows neighborhood, make it highly desirable…. CNN Money magazine rated Firestone, Colorado in the top 25 of best small towns to live in the U.S., stating, “low taxes, commitment to open spaces, ample recreation and an easy commute to Broomfield, Boulder and Fort Collins”.

There is no mention that Oak Meadows development is built over an oil field.  There is no mention of the violence, slow or sudden, fracking brings.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net