Nu­clear legacy hangs over drilling ef­forts in Colorado

ra­di­a­tion lingers from ’69 blast to free de­posits

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Cather­ine Tsai

PARACHUTE, Colo. — It may go down as one of the most bizarre nu­clear ex­per­i­ments ever tried.

In 1969, the govern­ment det­o­nated a sub­ter­ranean nu­clear bomb to blast nat­u­ral gas de­posits loose from tight sand­stone for­ma­tions more than 8,000 feet un­der a Colorado moun­tain. The bomb was twice as pow­er­ful as the one that de­stroyed Hiroshima, Ja­pan, in 1945.

The scheme worked — to an ex­tent. The nat­u­ral gas was un­locked by the blast, but it was deemed too ra­dioac­tive for com­mer­cial use.

Four decades later, en­ergy com­pa­nies are drilling near the nu­clear site as they look to tap Colorado’s lu­cra­tive oil and gas re­serves.

Some area res­i­dents say they don’t trust the in­dus­try to drill safely af­ter the 1969 ex­per­i­ment and in the wake of the Gulf of Mex­ico oil spill. They’re fear­ful that ac­ci­dents could pol­lute the air with ra­dioac­tive gas if drilling gets much closer to the nu­clear blast site.

“I’m not 100 per­cent sure that the gas in­dus­try or the oil in­dus­try is care­ful enough, or has enough plans in place, that if some­thing hap­pens like the oil spill that I would be safe,” said Parachute Town Trustee Ju­dith Hay­ward, who owns half the min­eral rights in a 40-acre no-drill zone at the site of the nu­clear ex­per­i­ment.

Res­i­dents are also quick to ridicule the idea floated dur­ing the Gulf oil spill to close that breached well with a nu­clear bomb, say­ing a nuke was tried in the course of lo­cal en­ergy ex­plo­ration, with mixed re­sults.

Project Ruli­son was one of three lo­ca­tions in Colorado and New Mex­ico where the fed­eral govern­ment set off nu­clear blasts dur­ing the Cold War to trig­ger nat­u­ral gas pro­duc­tion. All were part of a pro­gram that pro­moted us­ing nu­clear ex­plo­sions for peace­time pur­poses.

A plaque in a patch of yel­low sweet clover still marks the site of the Ruli­son blast, on a green moun­tain­side about three hours west of Den­ver.

The U.S. En­ergy Depart­ment pro­hibits drilling be­low 6,000 feet in a 40-acre ra­dius that sur­rounds the Ruli­son site, and Colorado reg­u­la­tors have kept wells at least a halfmile away.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion re­quires a pub­lic hear­ing if com­pa­nies want to drill any closer than that, and the drillers have to prove that their pro­posed well would pro­tect the pub­lic and the en­vi­ron­ment.

The En­ergy Depart­ment sug­gested last year that the state could al­low en­ergy com­pa­nies to drill closer to the area if done in a “con­ser­va­tive, staged” ap­proach.

Noble En­ergy Co. holds drilling leases within a half-mile of the Ruli­son site but hasn’t ap­plied for per­mits to drill closer. The com­pany de­clined to com­ment.

Lo­cal landown­ers have been fight­ing against drilling in the area, and last month a Colorado ap­peals court said they are en­ti­tled to a hear­ing on a com­pany’s plans to drill within three miles of the site. The state com­mis­sion, which said it lis­tened to res­i­dents’ com­ments de­spite the lack of a hear­ing, is ap­peal­ing the rul­ing.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion says years of mon­i­tor­ing by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency show there’s been no ra­di­a­tion be­yond what peo­ple are al­ready ex­posed to in na­ture.

Stud­ies by out­side agen­cies and con­sul­tants show it’s “ex­tremely un­likely” that cur­rent drilling near the zone would ex­pose res­i­dents to ra­di­a­tion be­yond back­ground lev­els that ex­ist in na­ture, said David Nes­lin, the com­mis­sion’s di­rec­tor.

Un­der emer­gency plans that com­pa­nies are re­quired to file with the state, prob­lem wells would im­me­di­ately be shut down and con­tained, he said.

“There’s a mis­per­cep­tion (that) no one is mind­ing the store or putting in pro­tec­tions if prob­lems arise or as­sess­ing whether prob­lems are likely,” Nes­lin said. “On the con­trary, our com­mis­sion has been very much en­gaged and in­volved.”

The En­ergy Depart­ment re­port said ra­di­a­tion from the blast is largely in­cor­po­rated within molten rock that formed a sort of glass cham­ber. “There’s very lit­tle dan­ger of it escap- ing, if at all,” said Jack Craig, a site man­ager for the En­ergy Depart­ment’s Of­fice of Legacy Man­age­ment.

“We feel that there’s no im­pact from the det­o­na­tion on pub­lic safety, health or the en­vi­ron­ment,” Craig said. “I un­der­stand res­i­dents have dif­fer­ent opin­ions.”

Hay­ward’s step­son, Craig Hay­ward, was 18 when he watched the Ruli­son blast from about six miles away. Nearby res­i­dents were evac­u­ated for the day.

“When they touched that thing off, I saw shale cliffs crum­bling,” he said. “Af­ter a while, I saw the ground rolling. It was like a wave com­ing through. Cars were parked there. They were rock­ing back and forth.”

With his fam­ily’s min­eral rights around the blast site po­ten­tially worth mil­lions of dol­lars, Craig Hay­ward said he sup­ports drilling if it doesn’t harm peo­ple or the en­vi­ron­ment. “But how do you prove it in ad­vance?” he asked.

Ju­dith Hay­ward is more firm about not drilling: “Why do it when thou­sands and thou­sands and thou­sands of other acres are per­mit­ted and safer?”

Ed An­drieski

En­ergy com­pa­nies are push­ing to be al­lowed to drill closer to the site of Project Ruli­son, in which a nu­clear bomb was det­o­nated un­der­ground in 1969. Cit­ing safety and health con­cerns, lo­cal landown­ers have op­posed such drilling.

Ju­dith Hay­ward Town trustee is adamant on drilling lim­its.

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