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A natural gas boom is underway in the Rocky Mountain West, and that's causing some concern near the town of Parachute, Colorado. Gas companies want to drill there close to the site where a nuclear bomb was detonated underground nearly 40 years ago. That area has been off limits ever since over fears of radioactivity trapped underground.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY: In 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission was preparing to detonate a nuclear bomb a mile and half below a potato farm. This was a large bomb with about three times the power of the one dropped on Hiroshima. The event was covered widely on television.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Unidentified Man: This afternoon health officials went from farm to farm, ordering evacuation within a six-mile radius just in case.
BRADY: The goal was to vaporize rock and free up the gas locked inside. This was part of the government's plowshare program, developing peaceful uses for nuclear energy. As the bomb went off, the camera jerked back and forth for a second.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Unidentified Man: The Earth shook like jelly, there was a muffled sound, and rocks and dirt broke lose from surrounding mesas.
BRADY: Scientists were right. The blast did free up a lot of gas, but it was radioactive and not usable. Crews cleaned up the blast site, and a few years later, Cary Weldon purchased the property. He lived in Tennessee at that time but was a frequent visitor.
Mr. CARY WELDON: We'd come out in the fall and we'd hunt, and as the years went by, I just fell more in love with this country.
BRADY: Weldon decided the 40 acres above the blast site was the perfect spot for his dream home: a large log cabin. He says the price was right; the view is fantastic, and the man in charge of cleanup assured him it was safe to live here because the ground would never be disturbed.
Mr. WELDON: 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.
BRADY: For decades, a three-mile barrier around the site was off limits to gas exploration. But in recent years, drilling rigs have been creeping up the mountainside, and now they're getting closer to the blast site.
The Department of Energy conducted tests and concluded that if a well were drilled just a few hundred feet from the site, there's only a five percent chance radioactive pollution would leak out of the ground.
But that does not reassure neighbors. Three families hired attorney Luke Danielson. He lays out the logic of the gas companies as he sees it.
Mr. LUKE DANIELSON (Attorney): Because I drilled this well and no contamination showed up immediately, well, then I can drill another well even closer. And when I don't see any problem immediately there, well, then I can drill one even closer. That approach guarantees that you're going to hit something.
BRADY: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has final say over drilling. Brian Macke is director of the agency and says there's too much usable gas in the area to ignore if it's safe to extract.
Mr. BRIAN MACKE (Director, 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.
BRADY: Marshall Savage couldn't agree more. His family own mineral rights to 1,500 acres surrounding the blast site. They likely would earn millions of dollars if drillers could get permission to work there. Savage is skeptical of opponents' arguments.
Mr. MARSHALL SAVAGE (Landowner): That has nothing to do with the blast, you know? 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 that they don't have trucks going up and down the road in front of the cabin.
BRADY: One property owner admitted Savage has a point, but says his primary concern is the health risk of drilling too close to a nuclear blast site.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
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