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Journalists Explore Life With Oil And Gas In Investigation Of 2017 Windsor Explosion

Ted Wood
The Story Group
The Stromberger site near Windsor, after remediation from the 2017 explosions and fire.

Just before Christmas in 2017 an explosion at an oil and gas site was reported in Windsor. You may not remember it; no homes were damaged, and while one worker was badly burned, no one died.

But recently released recordings from dispatch that night, plus interviews with those close to the incident, show the small Northern Colorado community just barely avoided a disaster.

Journalists Jason Plautz and the Story Group's Daniel Glick followed the story for High Country News. They say that even though there are more than 350 homes within a mile of the Extraction Oil & Gas site, and even though the calls to dispatch suggested the response was chaotic and the risk for deadly explosions possible, the state did not conduct an independent investigation.

A federal report by a third-party agency shows that leaking pipes could have contributed to the blast, but to date only a small fine against the contractor was levied. The cause of the explosion is still unknown.

KUNC's Kyra Buckley spoke with Jason Plautz to learn more about what happens in the aftermath of oil and gas explosions and what information is available for concerned communities.

Interview Highlights

Kyra Buckley, KUNC: Tell me about the process of unearthing what actually happened that night, and finding some of that data that showed this was really a near miss for a disaster.

Credit Courtesy of Jason Plautz
Journalist Jason Plautz

Jason Plautz, journalist: A lot of that information came from first hand interviews. We talked to a site supervisor who was working for a contractor on site that night, and we talked to some of the inspectors who were there. But what struck us in reporting this story was how little we can learn from the actual official reports that were filed.

We looked at the report that Extraction Oil & Gas, which was the operator of the site, filed with the state just a couple of months after the accident happened. You really cannot learn what happened from that file. (...) It's a whole laundry list of possible causes for the leak, for the spark, etc. It took us interviewing people who were there, interviewing people familiar with the site, and then confirming with some of the federal reports that came out from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. They did an investigation and they ended up fining Colter Energy, which was the contractor on site. That helped us get some more specificity. But we learned that what is required to be filed with the state is not necessarily the level of specificity that some neighbors, and especially some city officials, may want to see.

Buckley: As you continued to look into this story, what did industry and state officials tell you?

Plautz: What we heard from industry officials and from state officials was a lot about how safe this industry is. We hear a lot about Firestone, or the battery explosion in Mead. But they're pointing out, "Look, there is activity happening every day, every hour of every day, with no incident."

Todd Hartman is a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, and he told us any spill or fire is one too many. (...) But he said based on the 55,000 active wells in the state, 116 accidents -- which was a tally that came in a study that was done a couple of years ago -- he said that's one event every 1,573,276 well days or days a well is operated. The message was really, "These are isolated events. For the most part this industry operates very safely."

Buckley: What do you hope Coloradans will take away from your reporting?

Plautz: I just hope that there's more consideration into some of the impacts of the proximity of these sites. If you're not in Weld County, if you're not close to one of these sites, it's hard to understand just how close they can be to people's homes or to schools or to neighborhoods or apartment buildings or what have you.

Even when they're not back to back the way we describe in the story, a lot of the homes of the people that we talked to who were psychologically affected are scared of the blast. (...) They heard the blast and they were within a mile radius. They were not necessarily close to the Stromberger site during this incident. But they're still affected.

Listen to one of the dispatch calls from the night of the explosion in Windsor.

So I think it would be really just getting an understanding of what it means to live close to these sorts of operations, and what happens when (...) something goes wrong and there's an explosion. There's a fire. There's a public safety hazard. That's what everybody is trying to avoid. But these are complex sites and sometimes the worst case does happen.

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