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Harmful Concentrations Of Benzene, CO2 Detected At Midwest School

A federal agency says elevated levels of carbon dioxide and benzene at the Midwest School are an “urgent public health hazard.”

Administrators shut down the school at the end of May, after students and staff reported smelling gas-like odors. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says air samples from May 26, two days after the school shut down, contained levels of benzene 200 times what is considered safe and carbon dioxide levels 26 times the recommended limit. Exposure to both gases in high concentrations can cause dizziness and confusion in the short-term and long-term exposure to benzene is linked to cancer. 

The school and the town of Midwest are surrounded by the Salt Creek oil field, operated by Fleur de Lis (FDL). While officials aren't certain what caused the contamination, FDL found a leaking well in the school’s parking lot, which it has since plugged.

A recent air quality sampling showed gas levels had dropped to safe levels. Kelly Weidenbach, director of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department, says while exposure to such high levels of benzene could certainly cause short-term health problems, the risk of cancer is low. 

“It is measurable—it’s not zero," she said. "But it’s pretty close to zero.”

Weidenbach says before the school can reopen, the administration needs to develop a mitigation plan and install carbon dioxide monitors.

“Once the school can demonstrate that it can maintain healthy indoor air quality, they will also need to develop a response plan,” she said. 

A response plan, in case the problem returns. For now, students from Midwest are attending other schools in the Casper area.

This map shows wells in and around Midwest, Wyoming, based on information in the state oil and gas commission's database. Zoom out to see the nearly 750 active and former wells within a 1 mile radius of the town. Wells that are being inspected in relationship to the leak near Midwest School are yellow (as of June 10, 2016), wells that are active are red, and wells that are plugged/abandoned are pink. Click on a well to see which company operates it.

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