Parents and educators from the Bella Romero Academy in Greeley sent a petition to Gov. Jared Polis this week demanding the shutdown of natural gas fracking wells near the school that they say are exposing students to the cancer-causing chemical benzene.
The wells have been a subject of controversy, especially since an elevated benzene level was detected in the air near the academy’s two campuses in 2019.
Two studies have come out since: One from climate-focused nonprofit organization 350 Colorado in February, which raised concerns about emissions, and another from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in June, which found emissions to be below levels that cause health impacts.
Both studies analyzed more than 1,900 hours of air quality testing data collected by the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, which set up a mobile monitoring lab near Bella Romero from May 6 to Dec. 20 last year.
The February results are what prompted Greeley resident Patricia Nelson to start collecting signatures — more than 1,000 of them by the time the petition reached the governor on Father’s Day. The timing was no accident, she said.
“We’re a group of parents and educators in our community,” said Nelson, whose 7-year-old son, Diego, is about to enter third grade in the district. “And we can find common ground with our millionaire governor, at least on that level.”
Weld County is the heartland of Colorado’s oil and gas industry, producing 957,344,360 MCF of natural gas and 169,034,823 barrels of oil in 2019 — the most in the state, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. There are currently 19,991 active wells in the county.
In November, an elevated level of benzene was detected on the Bella Romero 4-8 Campus, which sits about 1,200 feet from an 11-well industrial pad operated by Extraction Oil and Gas. State officials declined to shut down the wells at the time, saying they couldn’t pinpoint the source of the benzene.
Brian Cain, spokesman for Extraction Oil and Gas, said the company has continually monitored the air near the wells for the last eight months and maintains there have been no levels of air pollutant that are harmful to health.
“Due to the placement of our monitors, we can be sure that no unsafe levels of emissions have come specifically from our site,” Cain said. “Our current plans are to continue conducting our 24/7 air monitoring at this location for the foreseeable future.”
Though the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 15, It does not expect major changes to its operations, he added.
Earlier this month, the state health department published a report calling the spike in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, an isolated incident. Across the board, VOCs were below those known to cause health impacts, such as harmful effects on blood cells and the immune system, the report said, adding the risks associated with cancer were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit.
However, the February study, conducted by Barrett Engineering, came to a different conclusion, reporting Bella Romero may have repeatedly been exposed to unsafe levels of benzene. (350 Colorado and Barrett Engineering obtained the state’s data through the Colorado Open Records Act.)
On Nov. 5, the state health department detected an elevated level of 10.24 parts per billion of benzene in the atmosphere in a 1-hour timeframe. (The federal health guideline is 9 parts per billion.) However, when 350 Colorado and Barrett Engineering compared benzene levels on campus to what’s considered safe during an 8-hour period, i.e. a school day (.94 parts per billion), they found the threshold had been exceeded 113 times. Four of those instances were during school hours, their report said.
Neither the governor’s office nor state health officials were available for comment Monday.
Anecdotally, Nelson and Therese Gilbert, a teacher at Bella Romero, said they’ve spoken with students experiencing the side effects of exposure to benzene, such as headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds, but symptoms are often so mild they could be mistaken for a cold or stomach bug. Still, there’s no telling what the long-term effects may be if Polis doesn’t act soon, they said.
“No one in their right mind would put an industrial plant that spews toxic gases 600 feet from a school playground,” Gilbert said. “You don’t take risks with other people’s children. Enough is enough.”