Be The Change Writes Second Response to the Firestone Explosion

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Subject: Second request for an independent investigation of the causes of the Firestone explosion and the risks of reoccurrence 
5/3/2017

Dear Governor:

We appreciate that you are taking the risks associated with the Firestone explosion seriously.  And while we are loath to play the dog in the manger, we think your response as presented in the Denver Post has weaknesses borne of your need to respond to the public outcry in a timely manner.

We again request, as in our original letter of 2 days ago, an independent investigation.  We think the public’s interest can only be served in this way, with an independent investigative panel empowered to hold hearings and gather information free of any outside influences.

Government’s first and primary function, as you know, is to protect public health and safety. That responsibility cannot be shunted off to the oil and gas industry. Such a regulatory formulation, given the circumstances at hand, is unacceptable.  Indeed, in our opinion, oil and gas’s control of the playing field contributed to this disaster, and we are not convinced that their economic interests will allow them to be disinterested investigators.  In fact, the concept is laughable.  Think of Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat packing industry in The Jungle as instructive.
Thus, our recommendations are as follows:

It seems highly unlikely that Anadarko, with its after-the-fact claim to be closing its lines out of an “abundance of caution,” can be relied upon to clean up what some observers believe is an Augean mess.  For instance, we do not understand why Anadarko would not have analyzed the reasons for production shortfall and taken corrective steps if gas production was below anticipated or historical levels when the Firestone well was reopened.  If any reasonable analysis were undertaken, wouldn’t they have discovered the open valve to the old line they somehow forgot(?) to close?

Our citizen experts think it was more likely a problem with the cement-on-steel seal–an integral part of every well construction that chronically fails over time and for which no solution exists.  How a leaky well seal, a commonplace, especially on older wells, and an open valve to an abandoned line may have intersected in creating the tragedy is unknown, but should be investigated thoroughly. This odd and suspicious coincidence, combined with the chronic well seal problem, should cause any reasonable person to ask how many wells are there out there that have closed off or abandoned lines, and how safe are the seals and valves at the wells that close off those old lines?  Indeed, how safe are the seals and valves at wells to working lines?  What is the life expectancy of well seals and valves? What are industry SOPs on inspection and replacement? We cannot and should not let the industry answer these questions absent independent public oversight.

There are other open questions as well, but this is front and center at the moment given what has been reported in the press. Corrosion of old lines also worries us.  What protections are in place to insure that old lines, thought to be steel, are still safe? And what is the life expectancy of the steel lines and the newer plastic lines?   And of course there is the overarching question of when is the state going to address the total lack of inspection of gathering lines and transport lines, of which there are many thousands of miles?  It shakes our confidence further when the COGCC’s Director Matt Lepore tells us they don’t have good information on the location, age, and disposition of oil and gas supply lines in the field.

I don’t think it is wild eyed to suspect either a cover up to keep wells working or something approaching criminal negligence.  This rush to final judgment without hearings in which technical experts can add to the fire department’s assessment is unseemly.  Moreover, Matt Lapore’s assurance another incident is unlikely to occur doesn’t carry weight.  He is a lawyer, not an expert, engineer, or scientist with deep technical knowledge.

The ringing question is still, what is the risk this incident exposed, what holes did this incident expose in the state’s regulatory framework, especially with regard to seal, valve, and pipeline inspection and safety, and what standards are used or should be used to assess risk?  The public in fracked cities and communities, from experience, have no confidence in the COGCC or Director Lepore.

Government has to take this lack of confidence seriously.   After all, government’s first constitutional duty, as we said at the outset, is to assure the public’s health and safety.  Until an independent risk assessment is made, and independent experts can review the information and the decision process, it will continue to look and smell like a quick burial of public concern, coinciding with the burial of the two young men killed tragically by an incident that government assures us is unlikely to reoccur.  We are not persuaded, and with good reason.

Finally, we welcome your understanding that there is a giant loophole in the state regulations regarding developers.  The oil and gas industry, without a request for variance, which can be granted, must observe setbacks of 500 feet from homes and 1000 feet from schools, hospitals, and some other high occupancy buildings.  Yet this standard is not applied to developers.  Forget for the moment, as the COGCC recognizes, there is no scientific evidence to support the present industry setbacks–they are simply cosmetic and in response to public alarm–how can the state look the other way in allowing setbacks of only a 150 feet for developers in some instances, and maybe none at all, in others? In fact, our intelligence is that some houses have been built over old abandoned wells and gathering lines.

Is the issue here public safety and the protection thereof, or is government trying to placate the developers at the same time it is playing a different placating game with the oil industry and yet another placating game with homeowners, city and county governments, and others sitting on top of various oil and gas infrastructure??  Your promise that the state will look at this loophole is not convincing.  If the 500 and 1000-foot setbacks are minimums for the oil industry, how can they be any different for the developers?  That loophole should be closed without delay if indeed it is the public’s health and safety we are interested in.

Thanks you for your attention, and we look forward to your reply,

Phillip Doe
Environmental Director
Be the Change

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