Report: Cancer-causing benzene spiked more than once at Bella Romero

The report, commissioned by the environmental group 350 Colorado, uses California's more stringent thresholds

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)

A new analysis of state data sheds more light on the benzene spike at Greeley’s Bella Romero Academy, indicating the cancer-causing chemical linked to oil and gas activity reached potentially unhealthy levels in the air more than just once. 

The report, commissioned by the environmental group 350 Colorado and conducted by the Evergreen-based private research firm Barrett Engineering, analyzed state air monitoring data from late last year. It then measured that data against the more rigorous health-based benzene thresholds set by California in 2014. 

Using that state’s 8-hour emission standard — not the EPA’s — the analysis finds benzene levels exceeded health-based limits 113 times. The report says those spikes include four full school days: Oct. 16, Nov. 5, and Dec. 4 and 18. 

The method of measurement casts the benzene exposure near the school in a more dangerous light than Colorado’s public health officials have characterized it. Advocates acknowledge the state doesn’t use the California standard, but argue that it should. 

“That’s the more appropriate standard when you’re considering vulnerable children,” said Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado, which is calling for a ban on fracking. “Where’s the precautionary principle here? Do a bunch of children have to be developing cancer?”

The Colorado Independent is seeking comment from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and it will be added if provided. 

In November, state health officials recorded a spike in benzene in the air outside Bella Romero Academy. They later said it exceeded a health-based air concentration limit just once for about 45 minutes. That limit of 9 parts per billion (ppb), set by the EPA, was “much lower than the levels at which people would typically experience negative health effects,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a news release at the time. 

But in 2014, California’s health agency defined much stricter levels for benzene at 1 ppb for continuous or long-term exposure. This concentration, used in the new analysis, is about the equivalent of a sugar cube in a swimming pool. The World Health Organization says “benzene is carcinogenic to humans, and no safe level of exposure can be recommended.” 

State health officials have not identified the exact source of the benzene. 

But, according to the report, the timelines for the benzene spikes and recorded wind direction suggests the Extraction Oil and Gas drilling operation near the school is the largest source of the benzene. The 24-well pad is located about 800 feet from the boundary of the school’s playground and about 1,200 feet from the school’s building. The school requested that the mobile lab be placed nearby after the permit was approved in 2017 and drilling occurred last year.

A spokesman for Extraction referred questions from The Independent about the report and their operations to CDPHE.

Bella Romero, a majority Latino school in the heart of the state’s top oil and gas producing region, is a battleground in the environmental justice fight. And the report is renewing calls to halt drilling near the school. 

In the wake of the report, 350 Colorado is also calling for the state to adopt more protective standards for emissions from oil and gas drilling near occupied buildings and schools, conduct continuous monitoring of emissions at oil and gas sites, release publicly available emissions data, and issue warnings when updated emissions thresholds are approached. 

“The symptoms of benzene exposure can begin as headaches and irritation of the eyes. Without better information and education from the state, these symptoms could easily be mistaken by families as symptoms of a cold or allergies, rather than from a dangerous carcinogen that could lead to cancer,” Patricia Nelson, a mother of a Bella Romero student and organizer with 350 Colorado, said in a statement. 

She added: “[CDPHE and Gov. Jared Polis] are turning a blind eye to a clear case of environmental racism.”

350 Colorado said community members are gathering signatures on a petition in an attempt to shut down drilling near Bella Romero. And on Friday, the group said, there will be 22 organizations attending a “Protect Our Children” rally and press conference at noon at Bella Romero Academy.