In Colorado, surging suburbs and the oil and gas industry collide over safety concerns

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colorado is taking a close look at all oil and gas operations across the state. That follows a fatal explosion in April at home in the Denver suburb of Firestone caused by a leaking underground gas line.

Tomorrow is the deadline set by the governor for companies to complete inspection of oil and gas lines all near homes and businesses.

The accident has revived the debate over how drilling can coexist with growing suburban development.

Dan Boyce with Public Media's Inside Energy reports.

GAYLE MERTZ, Resident of Firestone, CO: I don't have the vocabulary to describe it. It was just a massive, massive explosion.

DAN BOYCE: Firestone resident Gayle Mertz was in her backyard when it happened. But neighbors inside their homes felt it too.

CHILD: Like, our whole house shook, and like, jumped.

DAN BOYCE: One single blast leveled the Martinez home over on Twilight Avenue. As the home began burning, parents, including Laura Goodwin, grabbed up their children and evacuated.

LAURA GOODWIN, Resident of Firestone, CO: And, really, we thought that we weren't going back.

DAN BOYCE: The blast killed Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin. Martinez's wife, Erin, was hospitalized with serious injuries.

Following the explosion, Anadarko Petroleum, Colorado's largest oil producer, announced it had voluntarily shut down 3,000 nearby wells. Within another week, Firestone Fire Chief Ted Poszywak confirmed the swirling rumors. The explosion was caused by gas that entered the home through the basement.

TED POSZYWAK,  Chief, Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District: Due to a cut and abandoned line attached to an oil and gas well in the vicinity.

DAN BOYCE: Basically, odorless gas seeped in through the basement and the family had no idea. It was from a well 178 feet from the Martinez home. It's not an uncommon site in Northern Colorado, and other parts of the country, such as Texas and Pennsylvania, surging populations leading to the construction of new homes near and on top of land previously the domain of the oil industry.

The collision of those two sectors has led to political uproar in Colorado over the last few years, communities banning drilling, judges throwing out those bans. State law now requires new oil wells be drilled at least 500 feet from homes.

But Lisa McKenzie, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, has been researching this for years, and she says it's not drilling new wells near homes that's the only problem.

LISA MCKENZIE, Professor, University of Colorado: It was actually more common for homes to be built near to where an oil and gas well already existed.

DAN BOYCE: In fact, Inside Energy analysis has found, between 2010 and 2015, the number of people living in areas with more than 10 wells per square mile increased by nearly 50,000 in Colorado, most noticeably along the Front Range north of Denver.

And while the state mandates that 500-foot setback for new wells, there's no state regulation for how far new homes must be constructed from already existing oil wells.

Laura Goodwin says she bought her home with the understanding that utilities and oil and gas companies were doing everything they could to protect nearby families.

LAURA GOODWIN: That's why they get to drill, that's why they get the oil, that's why get the permits, is because they are supposed to keep the people around it safe. And they didn't do it.

DAN BOYCE: In the wake of the explosion, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ordered oil companies inspect all underground oil and gas lines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings. He says this all used to be open farmland and the location of underground oil and gas pipes was known only to the oil companies and the property owners.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, D-Colo.: And now we can see that sometimes that property gets sold, and next thing you know, you're building a housing development. How could we not know where the flow lines are, have a map and a record of them?

DAN BOYCE: Hickenlooper expects GPS data provided by oil companies through the required inspections should allow the state to provide a comprehensive map of all flow lines for the first time.

Anadarko owns the leaking well responsible for the explosion. They're holding community meetings and now offering free gas detectors to any home in the neighborhood as a way to calm fears.

Still, that hasn't stopped about 100 of these homeowners from launching lawsuits against the oil company, as well as the developer and builder of the Martinez home.

Anadarko turned down our interview requests, but Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Dan Haley says, as tragic as this accident is, the public can still feel confident in his industry.

DAN HALEY, President, Colorado Oil and Gas Association: We have been operating in Colorado for longer than we have been a state, more than 100 years. We have drilled tens of thousands of wells. We have logged millions of manhours out in the field working. And it is a safe industry.

It is not to excuse what happened. It is not to forget or pretend that two people didn't die. They did. We need to do all we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again.

DAN BOYCE: Some Colorado lawmakers are now calling for much larger distances between homes and wells, something still staunchly opposed by industry.

And speak to home builders, they say setbacks like that are just not practical.

Gregory Miedema works with a local home builders trade association. He says with all the wells, 54,000 active wells statewide, you can't really go somewhere where you're not building next to one.

GREGORY MIEDEMA, Northern Colorado Home Builders Association: I mean, quite frankly, you have to be prudent and safe about your distances, but you can't. If you were to rule out all the land that were next to a well, you would rule it all out.

DAN BOYCE: He says he's not against any setbacks, but the more land you rule out, the more you raise housing prices on what's left. That's the last thing Colorado needs. Prices around here are already rising at some of the fastest rates in the country.

At least for now, there's still plenty of demand for new housing in the area. In fact, if you look right behind the site of the explosion, you can see construction of a brand-new apartment complex, with nearly 300 units. But leaking gas lines are not the only hazard, and just five weeks after the explosion:

WOMAN: We start with breaking news, explosion and fire at an oil and gas site once again rocking Weld County.

DAN BOYCE: Less than four miles away from the Martinez home, an Anadarko-owned oil tank burst into flames. It happened during a maintenance check. This explosion killed one worker and injured three others.

The oil and gas industry can be hazardous, 42 deaths nationwide from fires and explosions between 2010 and 2014. But a house explosion raises whole new fears. And now it's up to the state regulators and oil companies to do whatever they can to make these residents feel safe again in their homes.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Dan Boyce in Firestone, Colorado.

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