It’s a sunny day outside Midwest School in northeast Natrona County as mud-swept trucks pull into a gas station across the street. Sue Green serves food inside the Big D convenience store. She’s the mother of three students from the school.
She said, “The one just turned about 15, the other one about ready to turn 12 and the other’s one 5 and a half.”
Since May of last year, her kids have had to take a 40-minute bus ride to Casper. She said it’s been hard having them so far away. For instance, she will be missing the annual athletic banquet to celebrate Midwest’s best athletes that’s being held in Casper.
Green said, “and unfortunately because our school’s closed, it’s in Casper. I work ’til 5:00 -- it starts at 5:30."
It’s the same for concerts, graduations, events... Green said the school is so much of the town itself.
"It’s such a huge part of this community. Not having our kids around has just been really hard on everybody,” she said.
Midwest School shut its doors after staff and students smelled gas-like odors which came from an abandoned well that led to levels of CO2 that were 20 times higher than recommended. The school is near the Salt Creek Oil fields operated by the Texas oil and gas company Fleur-de-Lis or FDL.
CO2 was finding its way out of the well through small cracks underground then rising up into the school.
The Natrona County Health Department said the gas displaces oxygen causing dizziness and headaches. It also carries organic compounds like benzene which can cause cancer. Kelly Weidenbach of the Department said they found benzene at 200 times the acceptable level.
She said, “When the school was evacuated, there was an immediate environmental emergency.”
Weidenbach added the county had never seen or dealt with a gas-leak emergency like this and had to call in federal agencies for help. The department surveyed students and staff to see if they had any symptoms after inhaling the gases — she said kids were showing symptoms consistent with a gas-leak.
“We saw a very significant drop off in those symptoms once the people were moved from the school and that environment,” Weidenbach said.
Since last May, after shutting down the school, the health department has coordinated with FDL, the school district and other stakeholders to determine the best plan of action, but that plan took several months.
Weidenbach said, "I think all of us would’ve liked to do that quicker.”
First, the well had to be resealed and plugged, then an air-monitoring system had to be installed as well as an entirely new ventilation system.
Natrona County Facilities Project Manager, Doug Tunison, said an effective ventilation system would stop gases from getting into the school.
He said, “The real danger is if it gets inside the building, it gets trapped and the concentrations can build up."
Recently the Texas oil and gas company who owned the well paid for the new system which is called vapor mitigation. It's a network of pipes under the school that suctions any unwanted gases from rising inside. Tunison pointed to a blueprint of the system on his computer screen.
He said, “It collects the vapor that’s underneath the school and exhausts it out above the school before it even gets in the building.”
On March 3rd, the school district tested the new system and it worked. Results showed no contaminants were above the accepted level.
“That’s pretty much over the hump,” he said.
The combination of air-monitoring and what Tunison described as an “over-designed” ventilation system means the school is safe. Tunison said parents should not worry about sending their kids back to Midwest.
Back at the gas station across the school, Sue Green said the gas leak barely phased her. They live in a town with an oil field after all.
She said, "I choose to live here. I love living here; I love raising my family here. I’m just glad it’s almost over."
Natrona School District still needs the results from three more air sampling tests, but Tunison said he believes the school should be set to reopen in the fall of next year.