Weld Co. couple’s house is demolished, farm dug up to clean contamination after leak
By Judith Kohler
The Denver Post
For years, Julie and Mark Nygren have hosted school children on field trips to their farm near Johnstown. But recent visitors to their property saw what looked more like a strip mine than a farm.
On a recent day, bulldozers, backhoes and large trucks drove around big piles of dirt, down and out of a pit and through the spot where the Nygrens’ house once stood. Speaking over the roar of the engines, the couple talked about the upending of their lives, starting in 2016 with the dying off of trees in front of their home, worsening health problems and the discovery in April 2019 of green liquid in a ditch 130 feet from their house.
The liquid was connected to a widespread underground leak from a natural gas pipeline running below the western Weld County farm.
The Nygrens are suing the pipeline’s owner and a construction company that dug in the area to put in a culvert.
And the Nygrens, their lawyers and others are calling for more oversight of the thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines under Colorado homes, schools, roads and farm land.
“I call it the subterranean toxic spaghetti,” said Lance Astrella, one of the lawyers representing the Nygrens in their lawsuit against DCP Midstream Operating Co. and Mountain Constructors Inc.
The “spaghetti,” or network of oil and gas pipelines, includes flowlines, gathering lines, longer transmission lines that run within the state and transmission lines that cross state lines. Flowlines, typically shorter and smaller in diameter, connect a well to surrounding equipment and are regulated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Gathering lines, the kind that spilled on the Nygrens’ farm, generally carry oil or natural gas to a collection point. Along with the larger transmission lines, they are regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the federal government in a manner that sometimes seems as much of a labyrinth as the physical structures.
A deadly house explosion in Firestone in 2017 led to tougher rules forflowlines. It was an impetus for Senate Bill 181, passed in 2019 to overhaul how oil and gas is regulated in Colorado.
Some of the first rules that were revised govern flowlines, which run from a wellhead. Federal investigators said gas leaking from a severed flowline likely blew up the Firestone house, killing Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin. Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife and Joey’s sister, was badly injured.
“I am here with you today to share my story and support change that will hopefully keep this from ever happening again,” Erin Martinez said in a 2019 news conference announcing SB 181.
The Nygrens said they don’t want to see what has happened to them happen to others. They knew there were wells and pipelines around them and feel they coexisted well with an industry they see as important to Colorado. But after the loss of their house and the ongoing upheaval of their farm, Julie Nygren said she worries about what potential havoc could be lurking below ground.
A subsequent, unrelated and smaller spill involving a line owned by a different company further shook the couple.
“Whatever happens here, I need to know that it’s not happening to my neighbors. I need to know it’s not happening near a school,” Julie said. “I need to know that it’s going to be taken seriously by whoever.”
“It seemed like in our situation, to start with, it wasn’t anybody’s jurisdiction,” Mark added.
In 2019, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved rules that require better mapping of the estimated 17,300 miles of lines, mandated more testing to ensure the lines are sound and updated procedures to make sure unused lines are shut down properly.
The commission has mapped 11,040 miles of flowlines on and off well sites, spokeswoman Megan Castle said. The public can see the locations on the COGCC website.
“There’s been a lot of concern”
In public hearings, some residents urged the COGCC to expand its oversight to gathering lines, which carry natural gas, oil or other liquids from the drilling site to a processing facility, refinery or a transmission line. They are regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — to an extent.
The PUC regulates natural gas gathering lines and intrastate gas transmission lines, but not oil or hazardous liquid gathering lines. Spokesman Terry Bote said in an email that the PUC has adopted federal gas pipeline safety rules, which exempt “rural gas gathering pipelines.”
“Regulations applicable to rural gas gathering lines are minimal at this time,” Bote said.
The PUC regulates about 700 miles of gathering lines it reports on to federal officials. Those lines haven’t been mapped. The PUC also oversees about 3,000 miles of longer gas lines within Colorado.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation oversees interstate transmission pipelines and oil and hazardous liquid gathering lines in populated and environmentally sensitive areas. Roughly 4,700 miles of interstate gas transmission lines and 4,300 miles of hazardous liquid lines are under PHMSA jurisdiction in Colorado, according to state data.
The federal agency audits the PUC’s pipeline safety program.
“There’s been a lot of concern expressed to the COGCC because that’s really been the only opportunity for the public to talk about pipeline safety. But what the COGCC did was point to their sister agency (PUC) and say, ‘That’s not us. It’s them,’ ” said Matt Sura, an oil and gas attorney who represents landowners, mineral owners and local governments.
Sura said new PHMSA rules that will be phased in over the next several years will expand regulation of lines in rural areas and require testing of the pipelines’ condition.
“We knew well before Firestone that these flowlines posed a safety risk. The COGCC had as recently as two years prior received an update and an assessment stating that these flowlines posed a threat,” Sura said. “They didn’t act until they were forced to because of a terrible tragedy and the political fallout after. I’m afraid that we’re going to have to wait for something similar on the issue of gathering lines and transmission lines.”
Speakers at a meeting in September 2019 called on the COGCC to start regulating gathering lines, saying SB 181 gave the agency the authority to do so. But Castle said the law revamping oil and gas regulations didn’t expand the COGCC’s jurisdiction beyond flowlines.
Industry representatives say shipping oil and gas via pipelines is much safer than moving it by train or tanker trucks.
“Pipelines continue to be the safest and most efficient means of transporting the resources we depend on. Maintaining the integrity of these systems from pipelines to gathering lines remains a top priority for companies and regulators,” Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in an email.
Over the past year, the American Petroleum Institute issued standards to help companies safely operate the larger pipelines carrying gas from production sites to interstate pipelines, said Lynn Granger, executive director of Colorado branch of the industry organization. She said she’s optimistic that PHMSA’s pending rules will clarify the oversight of rural gathering lines.
Although it doesn’t regulate larger lines, the COGCC manages the cleanup of pipeline spill, such as on the Nygrens’ property. The agency is also overseeing the remediation of a release from a DCP pipeline on agricultural land near Keenesburg and about 900 feet from the Wild Animal Sanctuary. Contaminated soil there has been sampled and removed.
The pipeline company didn’t respond to requests for comment about the spills.
“That home was our heart”
A lawsuit filed in June by Denver-based DCP against Mountain Constructors of Platteville says the construction company is responsible for causing the pipeline leak on the Nygrens’ land.