KERSEY CO - SEPTEMBER 26: A sign marks a pipeline on September 26, 2019 near Kersey, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
FIRESTONE, Colo. (AP) — Thirty months after the explosion that blew up their home and killed her husband and brother, Erin Martinez and her shaken children are uprooting a second time, still trying to settle away from underground oil and gas pipelines.
Martinez had done about all a Colorado resident can do, in buying their first replacement home, to find out whether fossil-fuel lines remained in the ground — checking with the home seller, the builder, town planners and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She received assurances the closest old well was a mile away.
But a few months later, she and the kids saw white Anadarko Petroleum trucks in an adjacent field. That’s the same company that owned the well hooked to an uncapped 1-inch pipeline that leaked methane into their old home, leading to the April 17, 2017, blast that killed Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, and left her badly burned.
Anadarko crews dug closer and closer, eventually exposing an abandoned oil well buried at their fence line, shattering her children’s trust.
“Very upsetting,” Martinez told The Denver Post in an interview a day before she underwent her 27th surgery. “It is insane. We have all these lines running through the ground that are carrying these dangerous energy things. And we don’t even know where they all are.”
Colorado leaders promised in 2017 that they’d do all they could to make sure such a tragedy never happens again. They pledged comprehensive public pipeline maps and better inspections to detect leaks.
But that still hasn’t been done — due to the difficulty of locating lines and a failure of government agencies to take charge. Only now, ahead of a Halloween deadline, are state officials asking companies to provide partial data on a subset of existing lines.
A widening underground web of pipelines in Colorado and across the nation spans millions of miles and remains partially unmapped, unregulated and uninspected. These pipelines carry fossil fuels out of sight and largely out of mind, snaking beneath homes and buildings to enable the consumption of oil and gas.
Federal government and industry officials contend pipelines are less risky and harmful than the alternatives of moving oil and gas in tanker trucks on public roads or by train.
“Safety is the industry’s top priority,” said Lynn Granger, director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, run by the American Petroleum Institute.
Yet pipelines still fail, sometimes causing catastrophic harm, and oil and gas companies are resisting stricter controls. Problems along the larger pipelines in Colorado for which the federal government keeps records are reported at least once a month, an investigation by The Denver Post found. Colorado health officials say air pollution leaking from pipelines worsens climate warming. And state data shows pipelines as a source of toxic spills.
State officials have asked companies only to give start-point and end-point coordinates for the smaller class of pipelines that industry officials and state regulators call “flowlines.” These connect wells to surrounding equipment. (The data that companies have submitted, ahead of Thursday’s deadline, indicates flowlines span at least 6,522 miles, an oil and gas commission spokeswoman said.)
Among the Post’s other findings:
— Along the bigger interstate lines in Colorado, federal data shows 35 “accidents” and “incidents” since early 2017. Those resulted from a variety of problems including leaky valves, ruptured seals and a farmer plowing too close. State records on oil and gas facilities along pipelines reveal multiple fires and explosions since April 2017. And pipeline companies in Colorado haven’t been required to report all incidents.
— Deficient pipelines cause roughly 10% of the toxic spills that contaminate Colorado soil, water and air, the state’s engineering integrity supervisor, Mark Schlagenhauf, told The Post.
Colorado’s lag in dealing with pipeline safety and environmental harm has compelled blast survivor Martinez — forced by her injuries to retire from her work as a high school chemistry teacher — to take on this matter as a family mission. Martinez now is advocating for comprehensive public mapping of all underground lines, frequent inspections including pressure tests before restarting abandoned lines, and a rule that companies must remove their old wells and lines.
“I don’t see why this industry can leave their trash in the ground. Flowlines that are abandoned need to be removed,” she said. “It is your right to know what is under your house. And what is under the school where you are sending your kids?”
The risks for Americans are rising, especially along Colorado’s Front Range and other areas where communities are expanding onto once-rural land, said Carl Weimer, director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization formed as part of a criminal plea deal after a 1999 explosion in Bellingham, Wash., killed three boys who were playing in a park and wiped out a two-mile stretch of Whatcom Creek.
Two of the main types of oil and gas pipelines in Colorado and across the nation are flowlines and gathering lines.
Flowlines connect wells to nearby processing equipment and storage tanks. Data submitted to the state ahead of an Oct. 31 deadline indicates flowlines span at least 6,522 miles in Colorado.
Gathering lines are a broad unregulated class of pipelines that collect fossil fuels from initial storage sites near oilfields and carry them toward larger interstate transmission lines. State officials estimate they span tens of thousands of miles in Colorado, but couldn’t give a more precise number because oil and gas companies are not required to provide that information.
Colorado does not require companies that own pipelines to provide public maps. And Colorado does not enforce pipeline construction standards or require regular high-pressure tests of underground lines, relying on companies to ensure safety. State agencies generally don’t send inspectors to monitor corrosion, look for leaks and measure emissions.
Colorado requires self-reporting to the director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission only of fires, explosions and detonations that result in harm to a member of the general public that requires medical treatment and/or caused damage to equipment or a well site that companies deem significant.
The oil and gas industry is preparing to construct many more underground pipelines. Colorado officials are wrestling with how best to handle the widening underground web of oil and gas pipelines.
“The use of pipelines is an important, positive benefit, overall, for the state,” Jeff Robbins, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said in a recent interview. “What is important is that we know where the pipelines are.”
Two years ago, after the Firestone explosion, former Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered companies to identify and test their pipelines within 1,000 feet of homes. Companies reported conducting integrity tests on 120,815 pipeline segments and finding 428 that failed — which then were repaired.
The state’s oil and gas commission regulators in 2018 updated flowline rules. Companies now must inform state officials where new flowlines are installed.
Robbins has directed his staff to consider whether start-point and end-point data for tracking underground pipelines is sufficient. Colorado could push for maps that show “the actual location of flowlines,” he said.
But the tens of thousands of miles of unregulated gathering lines aren’t addressed. Julie Murphy, the COGCC’s chief of staff, recently told commissioners they lack legal authority from lawmakers to regulate pipelines other than flowlines related to production.
Industry lobbyists have pressed for reliance on an existing safety system that requires residents, homebuilders and others who plan to dig — from house site excavation to tree-planting to installing a swimming pool — to call a national 811 phone number. Calls are routed to dispatchers who ask about planned projects, then notify oil and gas pipeline operators along with electric, phone, gas and other utilities that run underground lines. Companies then, if necessary, can send crews to proposed digging sites and locate possible underground lines.
Making maps available to the public, including property owners and homebuilders, could cause people to skip making 811 calls, said Granger of the Colorado Petroleum Council. “We just want to make sure folks aren’t using that in lieu of the 811 number.”
Vandalism and terrorism could become problems, too, she said, if pipeline locations are made public.
The hunt for a house away from pipelines has proved difficult for Erin Martinez, the blast survivor who lives in Weld County, which has become one of the nation’s biggest oilfields.
When she started looking for the first house to replace the one that blew up, Martinez said, her priority was “to give the kids a sense of stability.” She has worried especially about her son Nathan, now 14, who survived the explosion by leaping barefoot out his second-floor bedroom window, landing in debris and looking back as flames devoured the house where he knew his mother, father and uncle were inside.
He has a tendency to focus intensely on his fears, she said. So she was motivated, once they found the replacement house in Firestone that they all liked, to do all she could to make sure no pipelines ran near it.
In quizzing authorities, she learned there was an old well a mile from the new house. That seemed far enough way, so she and the kids moved into the home in October 2017. But several months later, they saw the Anadarko crews digging nearby. They watched as the men searched.
The builder was planning a second phase of housing development. “They weren’t finding anything” at first, Martinez said. Then she got a call from her lawyer. “‘They just wanted to let you know that they would be moving a little closer.'”
When the company crews finally found the old well, it was under the fence line at the edge of her yard. “I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy.” She pressed for details. “They said it was a plugged and abandoned well and that all lines had been disconnected.”
But that assurance, given what happened before, “was not something I’m going to believe.”
Last summer, Occidental Petroleum acquired Anadarko. An Occidental spokeswoman, Jennifer Brice, issued a statement saying Anadarko “took responsibility to locate the abandoned well on the neighboring property and provide detailed information about its location to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.”
Most troubling for Martinez was the loss of her son’s trust, and she said they struggled with his fears while finding the new house they were moving into this month.
“He just kept telling me, ‘It is going to happen again, mom! It is going to happen again!’ He put his trust in me, that I was going to find a house that was free of all oil and gas industry lines. And, basically, I lost his trust.”