Gas Drilling Plan Near Nuclear Site Raises Worries

A sign warns of radioactive contamination near the federal government's Rulison blast site. i i

A sign warns of radioactive contamination near the federal government's Rulison blast site near Parachute, Colo. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
A sign warns of radioactive contamination near the federal government's Rulison blast site.

A sign warns of radioactive contamination near the federal government's Rulison blast site near Parachute, Colo.

Jeff Brady, NPR

A natural gas boom in the Rocky Mountain West has drilling rigs popping up in unlikely places. Near Parachute, Colo., gas companies want to drill close to where a nuclear bomb was detonated Sept. 10, 1969, a plan that has local residents worried.

Project Rulison was part of the government's Plowshare Program — developing peaceful uses for nuclear energy. The goal was to vaporize the tight sandstone and release gas trapped there. Television news reports said the ground shook like jelly and there was a muffled sound when the bomb went off 8,426 feet below ground.

The experiment worked — a lot of gas was released, but it was radioactive and couldn't be used. The federal government began cleaning up the surface of the site and crews were still working when Cary Weldon purchased the surface property in 1976.

Weldon said the site was perfect for his dream home — a log cabin — and the price was right. He said the cleanup project manager assured him it was safe to live on the property because the ground there would never be disturbed.

"And I said, 'Is that your word?' And he said, 'I speak for the government and that's my word.' And we shook hands on it," Weldon said.

For more than 30 years, a three-mile barrier around the site kept drilling rigs out. But in recent years, drillers have been moving closer and closer to the blast site.

The Department of Energy used a complex model to conclude that if a well were drilled just a few hundred feet from the site, there's only a 5 percent chance that radioactive pollution would leak out of the ground.

That did not reassure families living in the area. They hired attorney Luke Danielson, who says profits are trumping common sense among drillers.

"I drilled this well and no contamination showed up immediately..." Danielson said. "Well then, I can drill another well even closer .... And when I don't see any problem immediately there, well then I can drill another even closer .... That approach guarantees that you're going to hit something."

But if the DOE says it's safe, then why not tap into this rich supply of gas, asks Brian Macke, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

"The Williams Fork formation is known to hold between 90 to 130 billion cubic feet of gas per section. So every square mile of land that you set aside that can't be developed is worth a huge amount of wealth," Macke said.

Marshall Savage and his family own mineral rights to about 1,500 acres around the blast site. He says the families are not opposed to drilling there because of health risks.

"How afraid can you be of the consequences of a nuclear blast site when you build your cabin on top of it? I think it's about preventing the drilling so they don't have trucks going up and down the road in front of the cabin," Savage said.

Wesley Kent owns a cabin about 1,000 feet from the blast site. He says the ban on drilling is one reason he bought property here. But he says the main concern still is the health implications of drilling too close to a site where a nuclear bomb was set off.

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