Landowners gear up to fight gas drilling in nuclear blast zone
May 5, 2007
DENVER ” Having a nuclear blast site in their front yard didn’t faze Cary and Ruth Weldon. After all, the bomb was detonated 37 years ago, more than 8,400 feet beneath the site of their log cabin among the pines and aspens in the western Colorado mountains.
They began to worry when natural gas wells were being drilled closer and closer to a buffer zone around the Project Rulison site. Then an energy company applied to drill even closer, fanning fears of radiation escaping from the site ” one of several where the federal government tried putting nuclear devices to peaceful use in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
With Project Rulison, about 190 miles west of Denver, and another near Rio Blanco, also in western Colorado, the government triggered underground blasts to free gas trapped in the area’s tight sands. A well at Rulison produced gas, but it was too radioactive to sell.
“They put a bomb in the ground three times the power that was dropped on Hiroshima to fracture the mountain to get gas out,” Ruth Weldon said. “What they don’t know is what has happened since that time.”
Presco Inc., based in Houston, Texas, withdrew a state application in 2005 to drill on the Rulison site after residents objected and local county commissioners withdrew their support.
But Presco, which has wells near the buffer zone, hasn’t given up. The area is in the epicenter of the energy boom in western Colorado, where vast gas reserves are an industry magnet.
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“We’re a very small company and this is our most important project,” said Kim Bennetts, Presco’s vice president of exploration and production. “At some point, I would expect the application to be resubmitted.”
The Weldons, who live part-time in Tennessee, and two other couples who live on or near Rulison aren’t waiting for Presco’s next move. The Weldons and their neighbors, Pat and Randy Warren and Wesley and Marcia Kent, who own the surface of their land but not the minerals underneath, have hired a lawyer and a consultant, created a Web site, handed out brochures protesting drilling inside a half-mile-wide buffer zone and circulated petitions.
Weldon said her biggest concern is the potential contamination of water ” underground and surface.
“Within rock-throwing distance of the site, there’s a little creek that runs into Battlement Creek that runs into the Colorado River,” Weldon said.
Bennetts said the U.S. Department of Energy hasn’t found anything amiss during its years of monitoring wells and groundwater, and neither has Presco. He noted that DOE has said most of the radioactivity from the 1969 blast was trapped in a glass dome formed when melted and vaporized rock collected in a puddle with a diameter of about 160 feet and cooled.
“There’s no chance of radioactivity leaking into the water because there isn’t any,” said Bennetts, referring to sampling that has been done.
“Is the Presco Use spokesman, spokeswoman, or representative. saying that potential environmental contamination is of no concern at nuclear test sites?” asked Robert Moran, a Colorado scientist hired by the Weldons and other landowners to review the data on the Rulison site.
Moran, who has studied water quality and geochemistry in industrial, mining and nuclear sites, noted that some material released by a nuclear blast doesn’t decay for thousands of years. An unknown amount of the material from the Rulison explosion likely wasn’t trapped in the glassy dome and could have migrated, he added.
The U.S. Department of Energy is trying to determine whether radioactive materials spread underground since the detonation. A study of the Rulison site by an independent contractor for DOE might be released as early as mid-June.
The area’s geology is quite complex, Moran said. There are all kinds of fractures ” some natural, some created by the explosion.
Oil and gas companies operating in the region inject water, sand or chemicals underground in a process called hydraulic fracturing to crack open the tight sands.
Rulison was part of the federal government’s Plowshare Project, which sought peaceful uses for nuclear devices. The former Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 43-kiloton bomb to free gas in the Williams Fork Formation, 8,426 feet below the surface.
A well drilled by DOE produced gas, but it was considered too radioactive to be sold commercially. The agency began deactivating and cleaning the area in the 1970s.
Long-term management of the blast site was turned over last fall to the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management, but it’s the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, that approves drilling permits.
Tom Pauling, environmental team leader in the Office of Legacy Management in Grand Junction, said federal and state officials have been working closely together.
“We’ve indicated to them that we think it would be prudent to give us the time to finish our study and evaluate the results,” Pauling said.
The DOE prohibits drilling below 6,000 feet within a 40-acre zone around the blast site. The state oil and gas commission has set boundaries that trigger more scrutiny but no outright bans. The commission notifies the DOE when a company wants to drill within a three-mile radius of the site and requires a hearing if a company wants to drill within a half-mile.
Pauling said managers will consider whether the existing restrictions at the site are enough. Critics say they’re not and complain that it’s unclear which agency is responsible for what.
“The thing that upsets me the most is the DOE dumps the problem on the state and the state is dumping it on the neighbors,” said Luke Danielson of Gunnison, a lawyer representing the Weldons and other landowners.
Under the application it withdrew, Presco proposed starting its well inside the half-mile buffer and drilling at an angle so the bottom of the well would have been outside the zone.
Bennetts of Presco said he’s not sure any study will mollify landowners if their goal is to just stop development.
Ruth Weldon, though, said she and her husband, who bought 40 acres on the mountain in 1976, don’t oppose development. “We’re not against drilling, but I don’t understand why they have to drill in this one area,” she said. “Why drill on top of a nuclear blast site?”