50 years ago a nuclear bomb was detonated under the Western Slope to release natural gas. Here’s how poorly it went. | VailDaily.com

50 years ago a nuclear bomb was detonated under the Western Slope to release natural gas. Here’s how poorly it went.

Monte Whaley
Colorado Sun
High in the mountains southeast of Parachute, a plaque located on private property behind a split rail fence marks the site of the Project Rulison nuclear test that took place on Sept. 10, 1969. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Long-time Parachute resident Judy Beasley has witnessed nearly all the failed attempts to wrench hydrocarbons from the dusty, high ridges and deep, desert valleys of the Piceance Basin.

But they all pale in comparison to the stab taken on Sept. 10, 1969, when the United States government asked the 270 residents of Parachute to leave their homes during the day while scientists detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb 7 miles away and 8,400 feet below an arid, windblown site called Rulison.

The hope was the bomb — equivalent to 43,000 tons of TNT and larger than the one that devastated Hiroshima in World War II — would force commercially marketable quantities of natural gas from the fine-grained, low-permeability sandstone of the Williams Fork Formation of the Mesaverde Group.

Beasley, then an English teacher at the town’s K-12 school, stood outside her home with some friends who came from nearby Rifle to witness the blast. Students got out at noon and by midafternoon, Beasley and her friends were standing around and getting ready for … nobody knew for sure.

“We didn’t know what would happen, and then the ground seemed to ripple around and it flowed, like a fluid,” said Beasley, now 77. “My chimney fell down, and there was some canned goods in the pantry that I didn’t think to put away, all fell. But that was about it.”

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