Colson: A deadly explosion, an industry under needed scrutiny | AspenTimes.com

Colson: A deadly explosion, an industry under needed scrutiny

John Colson
Hit & Run

I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop concerning the April 17 deadly home explosion in the well-riddled community of Firestone just a little ways outside of Denver.

For those who've forgotten or never knew it, two men were killed and the lady of the house (wife of one victim, sister to the other) was severely burned when their house, on a quiet residential street in a part of town riddled with gas and oil wells, suddenly blew up while they apparently were working on the installation of a water heater in the basement.

I haven't seen any news on whether the water heater was to have been fueled by natural gas or electricity, and no cause has yet been determined for the blast, according to online news sources.

But the integrity of buried oil and gas pipelines reportedly has emerged as a key question among investigators, and the company with a well only 200 feet from the destroyed house, Anadarko Petroleum, has shut down 3,000 wells around the region as a precaution.

There are, of course, numerous questions arising out of this tragic incident, and some issues that have been addressed almost immediately.

First off, everybody pretty quickly excluded some of the common causes of home explosions, such as cooking meth or running a hash-oil lab. It was hash-oil extraction from cannabis that was blamed for a home exploding only a couple months earlier in another part of Colorado's Front Range.

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And if it does turn out that it was a gas-fueled heater the men were installing, it's possible they somehow left the gas flowing while they were working, turning the episode into a tragic mistake rather than a suspicious incident that might be blamed on the gas and oil industry.

Naturally, a lot of the neighbors of the tragedy are focused on the fact that there is a well some 200 feet away, and the related fact that there are other wells peppered around the neighborhood, according to a map posted by Turrett, an oil and gas services company.

According to that map, there are both producing wells and wells that have been shut down — at least 14 of them within perhaps a 1-mile radius — on land that looks as though it was recently developed former farm land.

The neighbors have been asking questions and getting some answers.

For instance, it was quickly reported that the well closest to the house was not a "fracked" well, meaning it had not been subjected to the particular stresses of hydraulic fracturing, in which a high-pressure soup of water and chemicals is pumped through holes in the well-bore casing to fracture the surrounding rock and permit oil, gas and a variety of associated nasty, toxic chemicals to flow back to the surface.

Fracked wells, I should note, typically also are called "horizontal" wells, because the well bore takes a turn deep in the earth (sometimes 8,000 or 10,000 feet below the surface) so the process can affect a larger area of the petroleum-bearing zone.

Instead, this was a "vertical well," a more traditional type, in which a well is drilled straight down into the dirt and brings up petroleum only from the area immediately surrounding the bore.

But there remain more questions than answers at this point, and people in the neighborhood of the recent tragedy are wondering whether they are safe in their homes.

They have good cause to worry, I'd say.

For some time I covered the oil and gas industry in western Garfield County, which necessarily involved contact with state regulators, including the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. This is a state agency set up with the competing, conflicting mandates to both encourage and enable the extraction of oil and gas, and to guard over the health and safety of residents living near the wells and the employees who do the work of exploiting the petroleum-bearing rocks beneath our feet.

My conclusion after covering and writing about this industry is that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, as it is called, has an impossible job — it cannot competently be a helpmate to the industry and at the same time act as a watchdog over the health and safety of the people.

In reading about the house explosion, I found a thread of comments in The Denver Post about a story revealing that pressure tests, to determine if the well or pipelines were leaking, were never conducted on wells such as the one near the destroyed house. The well in question was too small, and its output too low in volume, to fall under the requirements of that state testing regimen.

Anyway, among the comments was a mention of Chris Mobaldi, a former resident of the Rifle area who lived perilously close to a gas well and who died in 2010 of causes that many say were linked to her proximity to the well.

Others also died or been sickened while living near the wells, and their stories have contributed to a growing concern that living near wells, and in some cases working on them, is not good for human health.

Two friends of mine, now living in Hotchkiss, told me they were driving from their small ranch home near Silt after one of them was poisoned by the fumes and contaminants spewed their way by a nearby gas well.

In that comments thread in The Denver Post, one writer maintained that the state of Colorado is too accommodating and too lax when it comes to oversight of this industry.

If this tragedy ends up being connected to the nearby gas wells, I'd say that writer is right on.

Email at jbcolson51@gmail.com.

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