Regulators Fine Oil Company $18.25 Million for Deadly Firestone Blast

An oil and gas facility near homes in Erie.
An oil and gas facility near homes in Erie. Chase Woodruff
Nearly three years after an explosion caused by an oil and gas well in Firestone killed two people in a nearby home, state regulators have hit the well's operator with the largest fine that the state has ever levied on a drilling company.

Members of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted unanimously in an online hearing today, April 13, to approve an $18.25 million penalty against Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, for four violations relating to the 2017 Firestone blast, which killed resident Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law, Joey Irwin. Investigations found that the explosion was caused by gas that had leaked from a severed and improperly maintained "flowline" connected to a Kerr-McGee well located just 170 feet from the home.

Erin Martinez, Mark's wife and Joey's sister, was severely injured in the blast, which brought a temporary halt to oil and gas activity across the state and led to increased calls for stricter regulation of the industry. Martinez became a leading advocate for the passage of Senate Bill 181, the reform legislation passed by Democrats in 2019, and for stronger protections in subsequent COGCC rulemaking hearings. She testified before the commission again prior to its vote on the penalty.

"For my family and I, today is an impossible day," Martinez said. "How do you put a dollar amount to the lives of two extraordinary men who really shouldn't have even lost their lives like this in the first place? How do you attach a number to all that we have lost? How do you decide the appropriate measures for such extreme negligence?"

Commissioners and agency officials thanked Martinez, who reached an undisclosed settlement with former Kerr-McGee parent company Anadarko Petroleum in 2018, for continuing to work to make sure a similar tragedy doesn't happen again.

"It is difficult for me to imagine how emotionally grueling it must be to again and again channel your own devastating loss into the work of creating change at the legislative and regulatory levels," said commissioner Erin Overturf. "You continue to serve the memory of your husband and brother so effectively by creating change in their memory."

The $18.25 million collected by the COGCC will be placed into a special projects fund named for Irwin and Mark Martinez, which will support additional monitoring equipment, an aerial survey and other health and safety initiatives.

Occidental Petroleum, which became Colorado's largest producer of oil and gas after it acquired Anadarko last year, did not contest the penalty. Mark Mathews, an attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and counsel for Occidental, told the commission that the company has undertaken "extensive safety efforts" since the incident occurred.

"Kerr-McGee remains committed to doing its part to make sure something like this never happens again," Mathews said. "We appreciate the engagement and the professionalism of the commission and its staff throughout this process."

Following Monday's vote, COGCC officials also laid out plans for continuing to implement new health and safety rules as required by SB 181, a process that had been put on hold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic but will likely resume through virtual meetings later this month. Martinez said she will continue to speak out at future hearings in support of stronger protections for residents living near oil and gas development.

"Unfortunately, we cannot change the past, but we can make the future safer," she said. "We must make sure there are no more senseless deaths, and that the industry makes safety their top priority, and when they fail to do so, they're held accountable."
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff