Lightning sparked explosion, fire at Encana well pad

This gas well fire in Somervell County, Texas, in December 2013, was caused by lightning

This gas well fire in Somervell County, Texas, in December 2013, was caused by lightning

Today The Daily Sentinel reported that lightning struck an Encana well pad located in the High Mesa area southwest of Parachute on Saturday, September 27. The lightning strike caused explosions and fires in two separate tanks. The amount of fluids released into the air and spilled onto the ground during the incident remains unclear.

According to Rob Ferguson, deputy chief of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District, a fire at that location was reported at approximately 7:20 p.m. He said the fires had burned out by 8:08 p.m. No injuries were reported.

… Encana spokesman Doug Hock said the bottom of one tank was blown out, releasing its fluid into secondary containment on the pad. Ferguson said the tank top blew off it during the fire and landed about 150 feet away.

What is called a thief hatch blew open on a second tank and the oil inside caught fire, and the stairs and landing also were destroyed from the lightning strike, Hock said. He said 98 barrels of oil burned in that tank. A barrel is 42 gallons …

The well pad is on BLM land and contains 10 wells. Encana has shut in those wells and reported they were not damaged.

However BLM spokesman David Boyd was vague about the damage to the environment. Boyd said “the destroyed tank held 38 barrels of oil and 78 barrels of water.”

… He said the oil burned off in the fire, and the water evaporated or was removed following the fire, “but Encana will be conducting soil tests below the containment to determine whether any soil impacts occurred and whether any remediation is necessary” …

A burn-off of 38 barrels – carry the 1 add the 3 – that’s 1,596 gallons which translates into TONS of air pollution. Of course mixed in with all that burning oil is the usual toxic chemical soup. And may I remind you that since the fire we have experienced four straight days of low cloud ceilings and high humidity, with cooler temps and heavy rains. Most of that pollution likely remained in the atmosphere, mixed in with the rain and fell to earth.

And it will be left up to Encana to police itself with regard those pesky details like, amount of fluids spilled and how much cleanup is necessary.

I think it’s fair to say serious environmental damage occurred as result of the incident. But you won’t hear that from the BLM or Encana.

… [Boyd] said Encana’s response was good, and it notified the BLM within two hours of the incident.

“Everything worked as it should. Nothing left the containment area,” Boyd said.

He said the fire was “an unusual incident. There is no specific lightning mitigation required, and a strike like this is very rare.”

Said Hock, “This was a freak accident and was handled according to protocol. There’s really nothing that could’ve been done differently.”

Ferguson said companies work to electrically ground oil and gas equipment to try to protect it. “It’s just one of those freak natural occurrences, that’s all there is to it.”

Fact: Colorado is one of the top 5 lightning states with more than 500,000 lightning strikes per year. A lightning strike on High Mesa is hardly a “freak accident” or “very rare.” That’s like saying blizzards and avalanches in Colorado are “freak natural occurrences.”

Then there’s the funny thing about well pads in that they tend to be located on high ridges with hundreds-of-feet-tall drill rigs sticking up in the sky like – oh I don’t know – lightning rods.

So now let’s look at this incident in the context of setbacks.

“[T]he tank top blew off it during the fire and landed about 150 feet away.”

Yes, the well pad is on BLM land so presumably no buildings or residences nearby. But that’s not the point. Lightning can strike anywhere at anytime, not just on BLM land. Industrial sites such as gas well pads can be lightning magnets.

Previous setbacks regulations in Colorado required only 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in cities and towns. In August 2013, setbacks rules were changed to 500 feet in all areas, no rural distinction. Can you imagine living 500 feet away from that toxic inferno? How about a school? Or hospital?

And the sad fact is that when the rules changed last year, the existing wells located 150 feet to 350 feet from residences and buildings were not magically picked up and moved back to 500 feet. Nope. Everything pretty much stayed the same.

Explosions and fires caused by “freak natural occurrences” such as “very rare” lightning strikes are the perfect examples for why not even 500 feet is not far enough. This particular incident – and others like it — ought to be looked at carefully when Governor Hickenlooper’s and Congressman Jared Polis’s blue ribbon task force considers further setbacks regulations. What if this happened 500 feet from a school? Or a hospital?

The task force members need to ask themselves how far away from this explosive incident and oil and chemical fire is far enough? The people of Colorado deserve to hear their answers.

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