Spike in benzene levels found at Greeley elementary school

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GREELEY, Colo. – A Greeley mother is calling for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to take action after the state health department found elevated levels of benzene at an elementary school near an oil and gas site.

Patricia Nelson is demanding a shut-down of an oil and gas extraction operation that is located 1,200 feet from the front door of Bella Romero Academy 4-8 Campus. She says she is worried about the students' health.

“When the bell lets out, kids are running outside, breathing in more of the stuff,” Nelson said.

School is still in session at Bella Romero, despite what Nelson calls an alarming revelation.

On Nov. 5, an elevated level of benzene was detected on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s mobile lab, which is located on the school campus.

“The fact that our children are being exposed to it at all is terrifying,” Nelson said.

Benzene is a cancer-causing compound. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of exposure.

Officials with the CDPHE have declined to shut down the neighboring extraction oil and gas wells – and said they can’t pinpoint the exact source of the benzene.

"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," said John Putnam with the CDPHE.

Megan Castle, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said this was a one-time event. She said during more than 1,500 hours of monitoring, there were 45 minutes that recorded the elevated reading.

"COGCC takes this situation seriously and we are supporting our partner, the CO Department of Public Health & Environment, in the investigation of the source of the Nov. 5 benzene spike and are creating a new air monitoring program together, to gather better data from oil and gas locations. Also, COGCC has a third party consultant conducting an analysis of Extraction Oil & Gas' air data monitoring from the site,” Castle said. “If CDPHE determined there was an imminent health risk, then COGCC would take action at a site."

Meanwhile, the Greeley-Evans School District 6 declined to talk to FOX31 on camera but said there have not been any elevated visits to their school health office. The district provided the following statement:

"Greeley-Evans School District 6 is in close communication with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as well as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and officials from Extraction Oil and Gas, as they work together to investigate the source of the elevated benzene level detected on Nov. 5, 2019 between 3:48 and 4:33 p.m. We have been told by the CDPHE that they detected a 45-minute average benzene level of 10.24 parts per billion on Nov. 5. The health guideline is 9 parts per billion.

District 6 was first notified of the elevated level on Monday, November 25 at approximately 11 a.m. With the help of the CDPHE, we drafted a communication that was emailed to parents in English and Spanish. It was sent by 2:30 p.m., advising them of the finding and including information prepared by the staff at CDPHE. Schools were closed that week due to the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Last May, District 6 invited the CDPHE to place their mobile air quality monitoring device (CAMML) on District 6 property at the Bella Romero Academy 4-8 Campus for the purpose of monitoring air quality on the site. The unit was back in the summer and again in October. The CAMML captured 1,500 hours of air quality monitoring. Nov. 5 is the only reported elevated level during their time monitoring the air quality at this site.

District 6 officials have continually been reassured by the toxicologist at the CDPHE that one elevated level on benzene during this time period should not be a health risk to students or staff at Bella Romero. The CDPHE community letter that we shared with Bella Romero parents said, “We don’t believe this small increase in benzene caused anyone to get sick, but we understand it could make you worry.”

District 6 officials continue to meet with officials from the CDPHE, the COGCC and Extraction, and receive updates regularly on their investigation of the source of the elevated benzene levels. We are also working with the three organizations to hold a parent information meeting at Bella Romero Academy, where parents can ask questions of these officials and get more information about what this benzene release means. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for Monday, December 16. The CDPHE is also working on a fact sheets for parents. In addition, the CDPHE mobile air monitoring station is back at the Bella Romero Academy 4-8 campus and will continue to monitor air quality on that site. District 6 has been assured by CDPHE officials that they will be notified should any elevated levels of any volatile chemical be detected."

As the state continues to investigate the source of the Benzene, Nelson is now urging Polis to intervene.

“The short-term health affects we may recognize, but the long-term affects we’re not going to know until it’s too late,” Nelson said.

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