The operator of the oil and gas well that caused a fatal home explosion in Firestone in 2017 could face up to $18.25 million in penalties under a new enforcement action by state officials.
In a notice issued today, March 12, regulators at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission announced that they would seek the maximum penalties for four violations allegedly committed by Kerr McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, related to the April 2017 Firestone blast, which severely injured resident Erin Martinez and killed her husband, Mark, and her brother, Joey Irwin. The $18.25 million total penalty, the largest ever proposed by the agency, must be approved by COGCC commissioners in a special hearing next month.
"Our hearts still grieve for Erin Martinez's family members who lost their lives in this tragedy," Jeff Robbins, the COGCC's executive director, said at a press conference announcing the penalty. "In their honor, the COGCC and I are committed to protecting every person's safety in oil and gas operations."
Investigations by local fire officials and the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the Firestone explosion was caused by an improperly maintained "flowline," a small gas pipeline connected to a well near the Martinez family's home. When Kerr McGee — then a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, which was acquired by Occidental in 2019 — restarted the well in the months before the explosion, the flowline began leaking odorless natural gas into the ground just six feet from the home's basement, which was ultimately ignited.
The notice sent to Kerr McGee alleges violations of four COGCC rules, including requirements that abandoned pipelines be properly disconnected and that operators "take reasonable precautions to prevent failures, leakage and corrosion of pipelines." According to Robbins, the COGCC had waited nearly three years to initiate an enforcement action, in part because the agency had deferred to the NTSB's investigation, the results of which were released in October.
"This took time because this is a significant incident," Robbins said. "This is a significant action on the part of the commission, and we wanted to make sure that we got it right."
In a statement, Occidental said that it will not contest the penalties: "Throughout this tragedy, Anadarko cooperated with all local and federal agencies that investigated the accident," the statement reads. "In that same cooperative spirit, we will continue to work with the state, listen to our stakeholders and collaborate with the communities around us."
In November, COGCC commissioners adopted new rules governing flowlines, including public mapping of their locations and stricter testing requirements for operators. The changes were part of a sweeping series of reforms required by Senate Bill 19-181, an overhaul of oil and gas statutes passed by Democrats last year — and championed by Erin Martinez, who urged lawmakers in testimony at the State Capitol to help prevent tragedies like the Firestone explosion from happening again.
Martinez issued her own statement praising the COGCC's enforcement action, but said that no penalty could be large enough to erase the "horrific nightmare" that her family has endured.
"Our lives are forever changed," Martinez said. "It is hard to comprehend that the only recourse is a penalty or a fine. How do you put a price on human life?"
As part of its March 12 announcement, the COGCC outlined a list of special projects that would be funded with the money collected through its enforcement action, including an aerial survey project, a mobile air monitoring van, new optical gas imaging equipment, and other technology that could help detect leaks.
"The prevention of a future tragedy is a great way to honor both Mark and Joey," Martinez's statement added. "I appreciate the COGCC's hard work in creating this fine and look forward to seeing the penalty at work in keeping us all safer."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.