Students won’t be able to return to classes at Midwest School until next fall, more than a year after an oil well leak forced the school to evacuate and close indefinitely, officials said Tuesday.
A radon-like mitigation system is being designed and will be built and installed by April. The system will take air beneath the school and pump it out into the atmosphere above Midwest. Alarms and monitoring stations will also be positioned around the school, and there will be periodic testing for at least two years, officials said.
In late May, the school was evacuated and later closed indefinitely because of the leak. Testing revealed high levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, which can be found in paint, aerosol cans and oil and gas wells.
Students and staff reported headaches, sore throats and other symptoms, and a state report released last month said the symptoms were likely caused by the leak.
Midwest students finished the last school year in Casper, and principal Chris Tobin had hoped to be back in Midwest after the summer. That hope faded and was replaced by a plan to have students spend only the fall semester in Casper, a round-trip bus ride of more than 80 miles, and then be back in Midwest by winter 2017.
Kelly Eastes, spokesman for the Natrona County School District, said that timeline was constructed before experts from Geosyntec, which is designing the mitigation system, arrived and warned that it would take longer.
So more than 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade will continue busing to the old Westwood Elementary building, and around 55 high school students will finish the year at Pathways. Both schools are in Casper.
“It’s been a challenge for everybody. Parents, students, staff,” Tobin said. “We handled it well, we are handling it well, but a person can only take so much change.”
The travel time — students leave for school at around 6:45 a.m. — leaves elementary students tired in the mornings, but Tobin proudly said the kids were champions.
Though there remains a risk of future leaks, she said she isn’t interested in moving permanently to a new building or school.
“When we went back to get our supplies (for the second semester), teachers were like, ‘Oh, I miss this place,’” she said. “’It’s home. We need to be back here.’”
Tobin said that even if there was interest in building a new school and funds were available to do it, a new building erected away from the Salt Creek oil field that surrounds Midwest would take the school farther from the town.
“The school is the heart of the town,” she explained. Many in the town of more than 400 have a connection to the school and will come out to cheer on Midwest at sporting events.
With the more than 150 students gone for nearly 12 hours a day, some residents have said Midwest feels like a ghost town.
Still, the school’s location isn’t ideal.
“I don’t have blinders on,” she said. “We live in an oilfield. Nobody can say with certainty that this won’t happen again.”
The school is surrounded by the Salt Creek oilfield, which is operated by FDL Energy. After the leak was reported, FDL plugged the responsible well. Testing taken two days after Midwest was evacuated revealed benzene at 200 times safe levels.
Benzene poses short- and long-term health risks. Breathing it in can cause dizziness, headaches and confusion. Inhaling extreme concentrations can cause death, and long-term exposure can increase the risk of cancer.
Federal officials have said they can’t guarantee the safety of students and faculty in the future. Officials are hoping the measures that will be put in place this spring will prevent further leaks. FDL is footing the bill for the mitigation system, including Geosyntec’s design.
“They’ve been incredible at working with us,” said Audrey Gray, the health preparedness manager for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department. “They’ve been very cooperative ... They’ve been very good at hand-holding with us.”
The company has deep roots in the Midwest area, Tobin said, and many in the town work for the company. Her husband, son and son-in-law all work in the oil field, so she trusts their safety standards.
But she acknowledges there’s no way to say for certain that a leak won’t happen again.
Despite the circumstances and inconvenience of the move, Tobin said only three families have left Midwest School. At this point, the students who stuck with the school through the past year are likely to stay, she said.
“Students are excited to get back to Midwest, even the kids that live in Casper,” said Tobin, who splits her time between Pathways and Westwood. “We’re all under the same roof (at Midwest). It’s just a closer-knit environment.”
Before students can go back to the school next fall, Gray said the building has to pass a series of tests. Then there will be periodic testing; should those examinations continually show clean air, the testing will become less frequent over a two-year period.
Tobin said there was some concern in the community about the long-term effects of the leak, and others wondered how long the well had been leaking gas into the building. In November 2014, an odor was detected and two Midwest kitchen workers became sick. One had to be flown to Casper for treatment.
Local, state and national health officials then conducted what they described as an exhaustive investigation.
“We couldn’t find anything,” Gray said in June. “It was inconclusive.”
In June, a recent Midwest graduate told the Star-Tribune that she’d had hives and worried about the health of her newborn. Another mother said her two sons had experienced fatigue, headaches, grogginess and a loss of appetite.
Gray said the risk for long-term health problems, like cancer, is very low.
Tobin said she wouldn’t let students back in if she didn’t think it would be safe. She repeated that she couldn’t be certain that it wouldn’t happen again, but she was confident in the work being done and the safeguards being installed. She’s ready to go back.
“It’s old and we love it,” she said. “And it’s home.”