Residents of a city along Colorado’s Front Range are fighting the construction of a major oil and gas drilling site set to be completed next year near a public school attended mostly by low-income students of color.

Denver-headquartered Extraction Oil and Gas was originally awarded a permit in 2013 to drill up to 67 wells a few hundred feet away from Frontier Academy in Greeley, Colorado, a city with a population of over 100,000. The school is composed of children that come largely from white, middle-class families. The parents were not happy with the project and organized a movement against the project.

In 2014, in the face of the parents’ resistance, Extraction Oil and Gas opted to abandon the Frontier Academy site, in southern Greeley. The company instead turned its attention to a different site on the eastern side of the city. In May 2016, the company filed an application with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for the project.

This new location also was within a thousand feet of a school. The school, Bella Romero Academy, serves mostly working-class Latinx families. Nearly 90 percent of its children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

In June 2016, the Weld County board of commissioners unanimously approved a special use permit that would allow Extraction Oil and Gas to build a 24-well pad project, known as the Vetting site, near the Bella Romero Academy campus. The industrial project will be located about 1,350 feet from the school building but about 500 feet from the school’s playground and ball fields. In March 2017, the COGCC issued permits for the project. With all of its necessary permits, the company hopes to complete the project sometime in 2019.

Last spring, a group of residents joined environmental groups to file a lawsuit in Denver County (Colorado) District Court against the COGCC for approving the project. According to the lawsuit, Extraction Oil and Gas stated that the Frontier Academy was “not ideal” for oil and gas development because of its proximity to the school and playground. The playground at the Frontier Academy, however, was further away from the proposed development than the playground and ball fields at the Bella Romero Academy.

“It is this stark disparity that raises concerns of environmental justice at Bella Romero Academy,” the plaintiffs stated in the lawsuit. “The commission and operators generally experience the least amount of pushback when siting major oil and gas development in predominantly minority communities since these communities do not have the same resources as more affluent communities.”

Extraction Oil and Gas did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress. In a statement issued in February, the company said it “engaged in both an inclusive and very comprehensive process to obtain permits for our Vetting site, and that process was completed in compliance with all local government and COGCC regulatory guidelines. Throughout this process, we have met with school district officials numerous times during the last two years.”
Bella Romero Academy 4-8 Campus in Greeley, Colorado. CREDIT: Greeley-Evans School District 6 BELLA ROMERO ACADEMY 4-8 CAMPUS IN GREELEY, COLORADO. CREDIT: GREELEY-EVANS SCHOOL DISTRICT 6

Weld County is one of the top oil and gas producing regions in the United States, with more than 12,000 active wells, according to the FrackTracker Alliance, a nonprofit group that tracks oil and gas development. In populated areas or where a well pad would be within 1,000 feet of high occupancy buildings like schools or hospitals in Colorado, drilling companies must apply for special variances to minimize community impacts. Setbacks are measured from the well head to the nearest wall of the building.

In January, the Weld County School District 6 board of education, which oversees the Bella Romero Academy, passed a resolution opposing the drilling site. The board asked Weld County’s commissioners and state regulators to reconsider their approval of the project. “A large, heavy industrial development located approximately 1,000 feet from a school could create noise, dust, odors, increased traffic, and other factors that could disrupt the educational environment for students and staff,” the resolution reads.

Patricia Nelson, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the COGCC, has a son who attends the Bella Romero Academy K-3 and will eventually graduate to the school’s grade 4-8 campus, located only a quarter mile away. Born and raised in Colorado, Nelson moved to Louisiana in 2010 before the fracking boom came to Weld County.

She came back to Weld County in October 2016 and was caught off guard by the scope of the oil and gas development. “I’ve been told that if I don’t like it, I should leave. But it doesn’t make sense for me to leave. I feel like this is something we have to stand up for.”

Frustration with the project is growing as construction on the site begins. A small group of protesters convened at the project site on March 8 to highlight the dangers to the schoolchildren. Cullen Lobe, a 23-year-old anti-fracking activist and student at Colorado State University, was arrested on two charges for protesting at the site: tampering with oil and gas equipment and second-degree criminal trespassing. Lobe had locked himself to a front-end loader at the construction site.

The drilling site represents a “clear case of environmental racism,” Lobe said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “These companies feel like they can just go in anywhere and do whatever they want. They have all the money. They have all the power. We really hope that these people can take a step back and look at what danger they’re putting these children in.”

Lobe, who became more active in environmental issues in 2016 after visiting the Standing Rock protest site against the Dakota Access Pipeline, said he is speaking out against the project because many of the parents of children at the school work two or three jobs and don’t have the time to oppose it.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, Bella Romero Academy’s student population is 89.5 percent “Latino or Hispanic, African American, or other people of color.” About 87 percent of Bella’s students are eligible for free or reduced fee lunch. In contrast, the demographics at Frontier Academy in Greeley, Colorado are approximately 73.6 percent white and 26.4 percent “Latino or Hispanic, African American, or other people of color.” About 18 percent of Frontier students are eligible for free or reduced fee lunch.

Project opponents are concerned about Extraction Oil and Gas’ safety record. In December, a drilling site operated by Extraction Oil and Gas went up in flames in Windsor, Colorado, about 15 miles west of Greeley. It took firefighting crews about 24 hours to put out the fire. One employee was injured at the well site.

Oral arguments in the residents’ lawsuit against the COGCC were held on December 22, the same day as the Windsor well explosion. The parties to the lawsuit are waiting for the judge to make a ruling in the case.

The Bella Romero Academy drill site is the largest near a school in the area. Other Greeley schools, like Northridge High School and Winograd elementary school, have a 12-well site adjacent to them. That site is operated by Synergy Resources Corp.

Outside of Weld County, Extraction Oil and Gas is planning a major drilling project behind an elementary school in a middle-class neighborhood in Lafayette, Colorado, south of Greeley in Boulder County, where it is also facing strong opposition. Parents of students at Pioneer Elementary School have formed a group called Together Against Neighborhood Drilling to fight Extraction Oil and Gas’ application for a state drilling permit on a 1,280-acre site.