State Finds Elevated Benzene Level at Greeley School Near Fracking Site

A drilling site operated by Extraction Oil and Gas sits just 1,300 feet from Bella Romero Academy in Weld County.
A drilling site operated by Extraction Oil and Gas sits just 1,300 feet from Bella Romero Academy in Weld County. Anthony Camera
For years, Greeley's Bella Romero Academy has served as a rallying cry for anti-fracking activists who say the elementary school, located about 1,200 feet from an oil and gas site where drilling operations began in 2018, had become a symbol of everything wrong with Colorado's neighborhood fracking boom. Now, state officials have confirmed the results of air-monitoring tests that activists say heighten their concerns about the site's potential health hazards.

A mobile air-monitoring unit deployed to Bella Romero earlier this month recorded benzene levels at 10.24 parts per billion (ppb), exceeding the federal short-term health guideline of 9 ppb, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said today, November 25.

"The state health department does not believe people were harmed by this single elevated measurement but is taking swift action to investigate the cause of the elevated level and conduct additional monitoring," read the department's press release, noting that the mobile lab recorded only one elevated benzene reading in an 85-day test period.

The Bella Romero air-monitoring tests come as the state ramps up its efforts to evaluate the health impacts of oil and gas activity following the release of a long-awaited air-quality modeling study last month. That report found the potential for short-term effects from drilling sites at distances up to 2,000 feet, well in excess of current statewide "setback" minimums, and specifically identified benzene, a toxic chemical that can cause a wide variety of short- and long-term health problems, as a top concern.

Following last week's test results, Colorado health officials say they're "conducting an investigation of nearby oil and gas activities on the day of the high reading." The state's air-monitoring unit will return to Bella Romero to conduct additional tests, and will report any additional elevated benzene measurements "as soon as data can be validated."

"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," John Putnam, the CDPHE's director of environmental programs, said in a statement.

Few oil and gas projects over the course of Colorado's decade-long fracking boom have gained more notoriety than Extraction Oil and Gas's 24-well site near Bella Romero, which environmental and social-justice activists call a textbook example of environmental racism. In 2014, plans for a similar project near Frontier Academy, a Greeley elementary school with a predominantly white student body, were scrapped following pushback from parents — and Extraction soon looked to a new site near Bella Romero, where students were predominantly Latino and low-income, as an alternative.

“After years of fighting this most outrageous fracking site, the CDPHE and the COGCC have just confirmed our worst fears," Anne Lee Foster, communications director for anti-fracking group Colorado Rising, said in a statement. "This industrial fracking site just 720 feet from a school playground is the perfect example of the overtly favorable relationship the oil and gas industry has enjoyed with Colorado state regulators for decades.”

A spokesperson for Extraction Oil and Gas did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff