'My Kids Are Scared': Deadly Colorado House Explosion Sparks Debate Over Drilling Setback Rules
Colorado residents, public safety advocates and local lawmakers have raised multiple concerns following the deadly house explosion in the town of Firestone that happened less than 200 feet away from an older vertical oil operated by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.
"If it happened at their house, can it happen at ours?" Heather Sawlidi, 31, who lives four houses away from the house, told The Denver Post.
"My kids are scared," she added. "I have a right to know."
Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the April 17 blast that claimed the lives of two men and severely injured one woman. In response, Anadarko shuttered more than 3,000 vertical wells "in an abundance of caution."
The incident has reignited a contentious issue over the region's booming housing and oil and gas developments pushing into the same areas.
As The Denver Post explained, thousands of people across the northern Front Range live in close proximity to thousands of older vertical wells:
"Of the 54,000 active oil and gas wells in the state, around 48,000 are older vertical wells," the Post reports. "About 5,700 are newer, horizontally drilled wells that have been criticized for their large scale and use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology. Colorado has another 36,000 or more inactive and abandoned wells."
Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore said that the state imposes a 500-foot setback between new oil and gas wells and existing homes. However, local governments decide how close new homes can be built to existing wells.
The newly built Firestone house was built 178 feet away from the existing oil and gas well, well within the towns' standard of at least 150 feet.
But Shane Davis, a biologist who started the fracking resistance in Colorado several years ago and actually used to live in Firestone, said the state's setback rules—even at 500 feet—are inadequate to protect human life.
"I have no doubt whatsoever, this tragedy could have been prevented if we had a state governing agency that was balanced and put public health, safety and welfare first," Davis wrote Friday on his website Fractivist.org. "Oil and gas operations should never be in neighborhoods and houses should never be built around fracking well-pads."
A tipster pointed out to EcoWatch that just a week before the fatal Firestone explosion, state lawmakers killed a setback rule bill that would have prevented oil and gas producers from drilling wells within 1,000 feet of school property lines.
The source noted that Vicki Marble, who represents Firestone in the State Senate, was one of the six Republicans who voted against the bill.
As a precaution, another petroleum company, Great Western, already announced that it shut 61 gas lines within 250 feet of homes. Great Western owns oil wells in southwest Weld County where Firestone is located.
Nearby counties are also taking action. On Thursday, Boulder County commissioners called for all oil and gas companies operating in the county to shutter their vertical wells. The next day, Adams County similarly urged operators within the county to immediately inspect vertical wells within 250 feet of occupied buildings to ensure they are safe and meet all industry operating requirements.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director believes there is "no immediate threat to the environment or public safety associated with oil and gas operations in the neighborhood."
Depending on what investigators find from the Firestone probe, Lepore said regulators will decide whether to order other energy companies to take any action.
Meanwhile, Anadarko's stocks dropped 6.3 percent last week to a nine-month low after it announced the closure of 3,000 wells.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.