Greeley parent raises concerns about emissions leak from oil and gas site near her son's school

"Our children are not protected,” said parent and environmental activist Patricia Garcia-Nelson.
Bella Romero Academy
Posted at 6:38 PM, Mar 25, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-25 20:38:55-04

GREELEY, Colo. — At the Bella Romero Academy 4-8 in Greeley, students study and play less than 2,000 feet from oil and gas operations. On March 21, at one of the nearby sites operated by Civitas, a “small emission” was released by a “faulty part,” according to an email sent by Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to a concerned parent.

Patricia Garcia-Nelson's son attends Bella Romero and her concerns about oil and gas drilling nearby prompted her to become an environmental activist. She keeps an eye on the oil and gas sites when she drops her son off at school.

The morning of March 22, Garcia-Nelson saw more people than usual at the vetting site, just south of the school.

“I went to the entrance of the site where they have the numbers posted, and I started calling,” Garcia-Nelson said. “That's when one of their field specialists came out and talked to me. And they said that they were the ones that found the leak."

Civitas was inspecting the site on March 21 using a special infrared camera when “they noticed emissions coming off of one of the battery tanks,” Garcia-Nelson said.

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Garcia-Nelson contacted Civitas, the school district and several state agencies looking for more information about the leak.

“As a community member and as a parent, I don't get any information about what's going on with the site unless I ask and I find out what's going on myself,” she said.

In a response to Garcia-Nelson, CDPHE confirmed that “a small emission was detected” during a routine inspection. A pressure relief valve on an oil tank was faulty and needed to be replaced. “This was promptly addressed” the following day, CDPHE.

CDPHE sent state inspectors to oversee the company’s replacement of the faulty part. The state also sent a mobile air monitoring unit to do a sweep around the school, which "did not identify any harmful analytes above baseline levels.” Analytes refer to toxic chemicals and the baseline levels are thresholds set by Colorado to determine how much exposure to the toxic chemicals could be harmful to public health.

A CDPHE spokesperson confirmed to Denver7 the response detailed in the email to Garcia-Nelson. The spokesperson said the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) and "the facility took swift action related to these emissions," and "the division does not anticipate taking further action on this issue."

The Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission (ECMC), which oversees the oil and gas industry, told Denver7 it "sent an inspector to the Vetting site. The inspection did not find that the operator was out of compliance and no corrective actions were issued." The ECMC spokesperson said the agency "is working in close partnership with CDPHE’s APCD division in investigating this complaint" and is "ensuring public safety, health, welfare and the environment."

A spokesperson with Greeley-Evans School District 6 told Denver7 that “the leak was small, quickly repaired and not of concern.”

A Civitas spokesperson said, "Safety is among our top pillars for our operations. Last week, Civitas professionals were performing maintenance at our Vetting site in accordance with our safety protocols... These safety protocols were confirmed and verified by the state agencies, who Ms. Nelson alerted.”

“The safety operations and the responsiveness of the state agencies help to illustrate Colorado’s strictest regulations in the country and commitments to protecting the community,” the Civitas spokesperson said.

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The day after Civitas fixed the leaky valve, an environmental group, Earthworks, captured video of emissions from another piece of equipment at the same oil and gas site.

“Leaks are not uncommon. Malfunctions are not uncommon. Inefficiencies are not uncommon,” said Andrew Klooster, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer who uses a special infrared camera, like that used by Civitas, to capture images of emissions.

Klooster went to the Civitas-operated vetting site on Saturday. His infrared video shows chemicals floating into the air because the combustor meant to burn off the emissions was not operating at full efficiency, Klooster said.

He explained that as oil and gas equipment ages, it requires more maintenance.

"It's really an indication that there needs to be a lot of oversight still and a lot of just active monitoring and inspection of these facilities,” Klooster said.

However, a Civitas spokesperson said the infrared images “in fact confirm the heat differentials and more than 95% combustion rate in that piece of equipment referred to as an ECD.”

Klooster said the infrared images can show emissions are present but cannot quantify the emissions or the efficiency of the combustor equipment. He said, “Those emissions could have impacts on nearby people. And in this case, that means you know, children playing on the playground.”

Concerned parents and activists like Garcia-Nelson agree that more monitoring of these oil and gas sites would be welcome.

Colorado’s top public health agency has monitored the air near Bella Romero before. Between May and December 2019, the state measured “volatile organic compounds” or air toxics in the area. The state concluded that exposure was “not expected to harm the health of nearby residents and schoolchildren.”

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The state stopped monitoring the air quality at the school in 2021 after deciding there wasn’t an ongoing threat to public health.

However, independent researchers from Colorado State University set up an air monitor near the school in 2022, and have continued collecting data on spikes of air toxics such as the cancer-causing benzene. Environmental groups planned to place additional air monitors near the school, but ultimately could not complete the process to receive funding from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Garcia-Nelson said, “Without active monitoring like we've been asking, we're going to continue to see [emissions leaks]. And it's going to continuously be up to parents like me in the neighborhood to keep an eye on what's going on because our children are not protected.”

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