Benzene spike detected near Greeley elementary school

Levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, exceeded federal thresholds, and state officials say the source is likely nearby oil and gas operations

Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, CO. An environmental advocacy group released a report on Wednesday that found benzene levels in the air near the school spike above California's health limits 113 times. (Photo by Lisa Gross, courtesy Colorado Rising)

State health officials said Monday concentrations of benzene exceeding federal health-based guidelines were recorded near Greeley’s Bella Romero Academy, a majority Latino school in the heart of the state’s top oil and gas producing region. 

At about 3:48 PM on Tuesday, Nov. 5, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s mobile lab placed near the school recorded benzene levels of 10.24 parts per billion. The federal health-based guidelines for benzene are 9 parts per billion. Benzene is a known human carcinogen. 

The emissions likely came from oil and gas operations, but the state does not know the exact source, according to John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Department of Public Health and Environment. 

The school, which serves students in fourth through eighth grade, is located near current and abandoned oil and gas wells and other drilling infrastructure, including pipelines and storage tanks. Despite objections from parents and school board members, state regulators approved an application by Extraction Oil and Gas in March 2017 to construct a 24-well pad about 800 feet from the boundary of the school’s playground and about 1,200 feet from the school’s building. 

That the well pad is so close to a majority-minority school where 87% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch is seen by environmental advocates as an injustice. The permit application and subsequent approval drew national attention and inspired a lawsuit where residents and environmental advocates argued the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which approves drilling permits, ignored their comments over public health and safety concerns. Lower courts have sided with the state and the case is now pending before the state Supreme Court. 

Following the permit approval in March 2017, the pad was constructed and new wells began producing this summer. The school requested that the mobile lab be placed nearby. The lab collected emissions data for 1,500 hours over 85 days and recorded benzene levels that exceeded federal health standards for 45 minutes.

State officials said the mobile lab will be placed near the school again next week. They also said they will review additional air monitoring data collected by Extraction and hire an independent consultant to verify air monitoring samples. They are also working with the school to come up with a plan for how to share information on what the emissions measurements mean. They plan to create a new process for reporting emissions spikes within 72 hours. It can currently take weeks to report high emission levels.  

A recent study by a private firm found that people who live within 2,000 feet of oil and gas operations may be exposed to levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, sufficient to cause short-term health impacts such as nose bleeds, headaches, nausea and respiratory ailments.  

The state has not received any such health complaints from students at Bella Romero, said Kristy Richardson, the state’s environmental toxicologist. Richardson said the state is requesting health records from the school nurse. 

She said the November benzene measurement is the first time the state’s mobile lab has recorded benzene levels above federal health-based standards. But she said such levels recorded outside Bella Romero were not high enough to cause emergency-level concerns. 

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is in the process of writing new regulations covering emissions from oil and gas. The rulemakings, stretching from December and into next year, come after lawmakers earlier this year passed Senate Bill 181, which put in place a process for overhauling the state’s oil and gas regulations to protect public health, safety, the environment and wildlife. 

That overhaul includes requiring oil and gas operators to obtain air emissions permits for the first 90 days of production. The state is also researching continuous emissions monitoring. Currently, when the state receives an air quality complaint, it can take days before inspectors are on the scene. Gov. Jared Polis is proposing to increase the Air Pollution Control Division’s budget by about 10%, which includes adding 10 new inspectors to the agency. 

The state’s current 1,000-foot setback for oil and gas rigs from school buildings is not based on science. It is instead a political compromise between industry and advocates. Setbacks are controversial and no rulemaking is underway to change them. Ballot measures in 2014, 2016, and 2018 sought to increase to baseline 500-foot setback to as large as 2,500 feet and each time failed. 

Anne Lee Foster, the communications director for Colorado Rising, a grassroots environmental advocacy group, said the benzene recording confirms “our worst fears.” She again called for all new oil and gas drilling applications within 2,000 feet of occupied buildings to be put on hold at least until the state writes new emissions rules. 

“Instead of taking a proactive response to protect the children of Bella Romero Academy from chemical exposures, the COGCC said they will improve their emissions monitoring and notification process,” Foster said in a statement. “The state’s job is to protect public health and safety. Letting folks know after their children have already been harmed is wholly insufficient.”


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