DENVER, CO – Nonprofit organization 350 Colorado released a report today, conducted by Barrett Engineering PLLC, revealing that benzene emissions at Bella Romero Academy in Greeley exceeded health standards appropriate for schools on numerous occasions while the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) took measurements May-December of 2019. Students and staff at the school were exposed to higher concentrations of benzene, a known carcinogen and hazardous air pollutant, than allowed by the most appropriate short-term health standard, developed for locations with repeated 8-hour exposures, such as schools and work facilities.
The 8-hour health standard for benzene, established by the California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment, was exceeded 113 times at Bella Romero Academy, including four time periods that directly overlapped with school days on October 16, November 5, December 4, and December 18, 2019. Actual exceedances may have been even more numerous, since emissions at the site were monitored only about half of the hours during those months. 350 Colorado gained the emissions data through multiple open record requests made to the state and were required to pay $414 for it.
Additionally, the average hourly benzene concentration was six times higher than the World Health Organization’s lifetime exposure standard. Wind direction during highest emission timeframes strongly indicates that the benzene was emitted from Extraction Oil and Gas Inc.’s eleven fracking well pad production site, located about 1,000 feet to the south-southeast of Bella Romero.
“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,” said Patricia Nelson, a mother of a Bella Romero student. “There is no system in place to alert us of any benzene spikes. The state is yet again choosing to protect the interest of oil and gas instead of doing their job and protecting our community.”
Despite Colorado being a major oil and gas producing state, regulators and public health officials have failed to adopt protective state standards for benzene or other hazardous air pollutants by fracking sites. Multiple toxicological governmental organizations have developed standards for exposure to airborne concentrations of benzene and other hazardous pollutants for various time periods and subgroups. The report asserts that when considering exposure standards for school children, a sensitive subgroup, the overall most protective safe exposure level that is consistent with the time periods of exposure of a school setting should be used.
Instead, when the CDPHE issued an “elevated benzene” public statement on November 25, 2019 (three weeks after the incident occurred on Oct. 5, 2019 at Bella Romero Academy), the state health organization referred to one of the least protective standards, an EPA 24-hour standard of 9ppb, and ignored the most applicable 8-hour standard of .94ppb developed for settings such as schools, where people visit regularly for approximately eight-hour periods.
“These findings demonstrate an increased risk of the children, teachers, staff and neighbors of Bella Romero being negatively impacted by these toxic emissions, both on a short-term and long-term basis,” said Barbara Donachy, MPH with Colorado Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Childrens’ smaller developing bodies are most vulnerable. Continued exposure to toxic emissions that increase their risk of severe short-term and permanent, life-threatening health impacts, such as leukemia, is unacceptable.”
Health experts warn that short-term benzene exposure health risks and effects include headaches, nose bleeds, dizziness, tremors, confusion, unconsciousness, and death. Long-term exposure increases the risk of acute myeloid leukemia, and can be harmful to reproductive organs affecting fertility and harmful effects on the developing fetus, and more.
“Legislation last spring, SB 19-181, directed the COGCC and other state agencies to prioritize public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife in future decisions and rulemakings regarding oil and gas development,” said Micah Parkin, Executive Director of 350 Colorado. “It is way past time for Gov. Polis to stop Extraction’s activities at Bella Romero Academy and direct the CDPHE to adopt the most protective standards and protocols for toxic emissions at fracking sites.”
Local community members, 350 Colorado and allies presented these findings to CDPHE staff on Wednesday morning. They are calling on Governor Polis to direct the CDPHE to take the following immediate actions. First, suspend Extraction’s operations at Bella Romero Academy and shut in the wells. Second, adopt the most protective standards for toxic emissions from oil and gas sites near occupied buildings and especially by schools. Third, preemptively model and continuously monitor the emissions at these sites and make the data available to the public in real time online. Fourth, issue warnings whenever these thresholds are approached and immediately shut down operations if they exceed standards. They warn that the current lack of oversight leaves millions of Coloradans at significant risk.
“CDPHE representatives have been insisting that there would be no negative health effects from the exposure,” said Nelson. “By burying data and cherry-picking health standards, while allowing fracking to continue, Governor Polis and the CDPHE have abandoned protection for our school, which is primarily a low-income community of color. They are turning a blind eye to a clear case of environmental racism.”
Community members are gathering signatures on a petition demanding the immediate suspension of drilling and production at Bella Romero and will be joined by twenty-two organizations for a “Protect Our Children” Rally and Press Conference at noon MT Friday, March 13 at Bella Romero Academy.