Measure benzene, damn it!

The “mobile plume tracker” that CSU scientists used to measure air emissions from oil and gas operations. [Source: CSU]

Why is the state of Colorado measuring for non-toxic methane but not super toxic benzene?
Guest post by Wendell G Bradley, PhD Physics*

On Dec 22, 2017 an inexperienced worker apparently manually overrode a mechanism that had shut down a new well’s production in Windsor, CO, due perhaps to a pressure upset (unexpected, uncontrolled pressure from a “frack hit” communication with a nearby well’s drilling-fracking operation). A subsequent leak of toxic, explosive gases lasted for hours before a pad-wide explosion was finally triggered possibly by an on-site electrical generator [1[. An ongoing atmospheric inversion abetted creep of leaked methane into residential areas as it did in Cleveland, Ohio, where it exploded, destroying a square mile of structures. Windsor dodged that bullet.

According to scientific monitoring near Boulder, a very unusual benzene data spike on that date registered about 1 ppb (part per billion). Likely from the Windsor explosion, the benzene release, having undergone 40 miles of dispersion, must have been much higher at its source, perhaps at the ppm (parts per million) level. Toxic and explosive concentrations were likely getting high enough near the well site that compulsory evacuation of residents and toxic chemical warnings were warranted. No measurements of benzene releases were made however, in the Windsor area and no general warnings were issued.

An oil-well map from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) was used by Boulder scientists to identify possible sources for their unexplained large spikes in VOC (volatile organic compound) data. The map showed the Wattenberg (core part of the DJ Oil Basin) as a nearly solid brown blot due to proximity-overlap of old, largely depleted wells. Perhaps the indeterminacy of this map is why the explosion’s release location, almost certainly from the point source of Windsor’s Stromberger well #7 explosion, became only vaguely characterized by Boulder’s monitoring as merely “from the NE.” [2] Later, after an alert from a Windsor resident, a possible connection of the Boulder data spike to the Windsor explosion became plausible.

Not that many big, large-footprint, “new-efficiency” well pads (longer laterals and more frack stages) yet exist. Familiarity with their locations and fugitive emission levels could better connect researchers to specific release locations and yield much improved health and safety assessments.

As long as the nature of major, toxic oil-patch releases remain vague, cause and effect connections will never be solidly made. Investigators might want to avoid oil’s considerable push back on culpability, thus seek the same-old, accommodating research renewals. Needed links between observed, oil-related data spikes and point-source releases could be made functionally clear, with government support. Researchers’ reservations as in, “I cannot specify the cause,” could be overcome.

We who are suffering in health from big-pad benzene releases and their lack of adequate scientific assessment are only secondarily concerned about a climate (i.e. methane) emphasis in research or how it might be funded. The people need research conclusions that are benzene-specific enough to prompt actions and prevent further poisonings.

But alas, narrow academic achievement and a public relations focus by our state agencies, not public safety and general welfare, remain operative. Accordingly benzene research cannot be expected. The people’s case in Colorado also suffers from a seeming pro-fracking bias from the state’s corporate-controlled media. Only a few local papers have dared to take a people’s perspective. No wonder Colorado’s official research on fracking’s harms runs contrary to the larger body of peer-reviewed findings; for example, those documented by the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (New York; 4th edition).

An important example of local, possibly misleading research follows:
In Colorado State University’s (CSU’s) “Collett Study” of 2016, CSU scientists partnered with Operators Encana, Anadarko, PDC, and Noble, and with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). From known emission rates of an acetylene tracer in a Gaussian dispersion model, concentrations of oil-pad VOC releases were inferred. The study is based on the assumption that VOC emission rates will be proportional to their concentrations upon collection for measurement. Collection was done by canister at distances ranging from about 100 feet to a half mile and at heights of 3 to 10 meters, during various stages of the pad’s production cycle.

Canisters samplings were taken at different times and distances within the tracer-identified emissions plume. Canister contents were transported to a lab and there analyzed by gas chromatography. Acetylene was chosen as the tracer (to establish emission rates) because it’s molecular weight is similar to that of methane (being both predominant in the plume and of particular interest because experimentally “well-behaved”). Compared with other hydrocarbons, benzene is heavier than air and highly water-soluble, thus in part might volatilize separately (by liquid film) later and not be fully mixed in the plume. [3]

The Collett Study’s experimental protocol could legitimately infer concentrations of the lighter VOCs such as methane. Being lighter than air, they would rise and waft on air currents thus behave similarly to the acetylene tracer. This protocol could be less suitable, however, for measuring not so well-behaved benzene. Put simply, heavier, unmixed benzene concentrations may not be proportional to the study’s well-mixed emission rate, thus in violation of the premise of the study’s model.

The study’s benzene concentrations registered only in parts per billion for all pad operations. Such low concentrations are inconsistent with other studies which found benzene levels 1000 times greater, or in ppm (parts per million). For example, see Macy’s finding of benzene at 34 ppm [4] and Rich’s at 3 ppm. [5] Also, heavier benzene releases, if not thoroughly mixed in air, may be inaccurately measured at tower heights. Poorly measured benzene levels, found at health-innocuous concentrations, have sometimes whitewashed industry harms, as in the Erie, CO study. If it were true that benzene releases at pad operations have never reached ppm levels, as official studies are claiming, tower measurements at Boulder could doubtfully have detected benzene, still at about 1 ppb, after traveling 40 miles from Windsor’s well explosion.

Also canister integrity is an issue. Might canister tampering by industry personnel be an uncontrolled variable? Can canister integrity be maintained during shipment to and from measurement labs? Is the lab’s chromatography well calibrated? On this issue, consider Accutest labs, the testing firm currently employed by the COGCC. Accutest has been sued, multiple times, for violating scientifically established testing protocols (including calibration errors), but have settled by issuing payouts in the millions (no fault agreements). Their current lab testing serves mainly corporations and governments.

Other issues:

  • Did industry personnel operate the plume tracker?
  • Who collected the canisters?
  • Why were the “flowback” samples, most suspect of high benzene concentrations, only taken after the well completion’s return stream had been turned into closed tanks and emission control devices had been activated?
  • Would data collectors know if they were being lied to about operational conditions?
  • Were benzene concentrations ever measured directly as a check on the study’s instrumental integrity?

Given the Collett Study’s shortcomings, why not measure benzene concentrations directly? This can be done quickly, accurately enough, easily, and during relevant site emissions with a simple, inexpensive, hand held device called a Draeger tube. After all, benzene poisoning is the health issue here. It is super toxic. [6] Methane is nontoxic. If health were truly a primary concern, direct knowledge of benzene emissions would be paramount. Legitimate investigators would not be using inferential protocols geared to methane.

Of course, studies of fracking’s contribution to climate change from fugitive methane are highly useful. Nevertheless, Colorado Universities and the CDPHE should have direct measurement programs that specifically address fracking’s immediate health, safety, and welfare consequences. And that means a special focus on benzene concentrations.

Health and safety concerns over fracking revitalized in response to a number of recent, major toxic releases and fatalities are now a vital issue for Coloradans. There is a publicly perceived negligence at the COGCC and CDPHE. Unfortunately, Colorado’s agencies are responding only defensively, for example, even invoking new rules (COGCC) to further limit public input.


  1. Interim COGCC inspection reports and Operator
  2. Research presentation by Detlev Helmig of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR):
  3. Volatilization of Benzene and Eight Alkyl-Substituted Benzene Compounds from Water
  4. Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study
  5. Elevated atmospheric levels of benzene and benzene-related compounds from unconventional shale extraction and processing: human health concern for residential communities
  6. Benzene exposure has been linked to: Cancer, anemia, low birth weight, delayed bone formation, nervous system depression, skin disorders, and inhalation injuries. No benzene exposure, at any level, is safe.

* Wendell Bradley lives in Windsor, CO

See also: CSU study may help answer GarCo health questions around oil and gas activity

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One Comment on “Measure benzene, damn it!”

  1. Dr Bob Rich Says:

    That’s scary! Should be more widely known. Who would want fracking in their backyard?

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