The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is ramping up air monitoring near a school in Greeley after researchers visiting the area detected a spike in the level of the chemical benzene. The state is also investigating several nearby oil and gas facilities as possible sources.
According to the CDPHE, the spike happened during a single 45-minute reading taken at the Bella Romero 4-8 Academy on Nov. 5. The reading was part of a much larger test happening at the school, which has a slew of oil and gas activity nearby, including a well pad less than 1,500 feet away from its front door.
“The state health department does not believe people were harmed by this single elevated measurement,” the agency said in a statement. “But we are taking swift action to investigate the cause.”
The state’s mobile air monitoring lab measured a benzene level of 10.24 parts per billion on school grounds. The level slightly exceeds federal health standards.
Breathing in high levels of the chemical can cause short-term health effects like headaches, skin and eye irritation and dizziness. Long-term exposure to benzene has also been linked to certain types of cancers.
John Putnam, director of environmental programs for CDPHE, said the state’s mobile lab would be back at the school sometime in the next week to collect more air samples.
"While we can’t say conclusively why this instance of elevated benzene occurred, the state is taking further action now to ensure the kids in this school and people in this community have peace of mind and clean air to breathe," Putnam said in a statement.
Extraction Oil and Gas, the company operating the well pad near Bella Romero, said it does not believe the chemical came from its facility.
“We are grateful that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and CDPHE notified us of their (mobile lab) reading in the area of one of our facilities,” the company said in a statement. “We have committed to working with both agencies to research and aid in the investigation of potential sources of these preliminary readings at their monitoring station.”
After learning of the benzene reading, the company said it “scoured” its pressure monitoring levels, facility logs and onsite gas detection devices. It then determined “there was no sign that our facility was the source of any emissions.”
“At the time we were notified of these elevated levels, we immediately deployed our air monitoring teams and had additional, real-time equipment onsite by the following morning to assist in finding a potential emissions source in the area,” the company said.
Extraction also reiterated that the brief spike in the benzene level at Bella Romero did not pose a risk to public health.
“People at gas stations are generally exposed to around 200 parts per billion of benzene while filling their cars and trucks with gasoline -- more than 20 times the level that was captured on Nov. 5,” the company said.
Drilling near Bella Romero has been a source of contention for years. In 2017, a group of local parents sued the state to try and halt plans to build a well pad near the school. Despite protests, Extraction eventually won the right and began drilling last year, mainly during non-school hours.
On Monday, environmental groups and some parents lamented the new benzene detection.
Patricia Nelson, a Bella Romero parent and activist, said the COGCC and Extraction should be held responsible for any “harm that this (oil and gas) site may cause.”
“The concern for our children’s health and safety has been dismissed,” Nelson said in a statement. “Time and time again we have been told there is nothing to worry about.”
“The CDPHE and the COGCC have just confirmed our worst fears,” said Anne Lee Foster, communications director for Colorado Rising, an environmental group. “The state’s job is to protect public health and safety. Letting folks know after their children have already been harmed is wholly insufficient.”
Colorado Rising also reiterated its request to Governor Jared Polis that he shut down well pads within 2,000 feet of homes and schools. The state has tens of thousands of active oil and gas wells -- most of them concentrated northeast of Denver.
In 2013, the COGCC increased the state's minimum well setback from 350 to 500 feet from homes, schools and other occupied structures. Earlier this year, the state increased that distance to 1,000 feet from schools or child care centers.
Research has shown the current distances in Colorado and other states aren't based on data. Rather, they're set through political compromise between industry, environmental advocates and state agencies.
The state is currently implementing new legislation, Senate Bill 181, with the goal of protecting public health and safety amid Colorado’s oil and gas development.
Last week, the COGCC passed tougher regulations around flowlines, the underground pipes that connect oil and gas wells to storage tanks and other equipment.
The agency is also putting some drilling applications through a more rigorous review process after a state-commissioned study found people can face short term health risks, such as headaches and dizziness, if they are within 2,000 feet of active wells.
The study found the health risks occur when a well is being constructed, with the highest risk coming at a time when a process called “flowback” occurs.
The state’s Air Quality Control Commission is also expected to pass new rules next month to help reduce air emissions from oil and gas operations.