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Drilling at nuclear site allowed

Carrie Click

The state of Colorado will allow natural gas drilling near the site of an underground nuclear explosion detonated in 1969 south of Battlement Mesa.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission unanimously approved natural gas drilling near “ground zero” of the test site during a recent meeting in Glenwood Springs.

Commissioner Tom Reagan explained the detonation experiment – dubbed Project Rulison – was part of a series of Atomic Energy Commission experiments begun in the 1950s called Project Plowshare that was intended to “use weapons of war for tools of peace.”



That included using nuclear weapons to dig harbors, canals and tunnels, and free up valuable underground mineral deposits.

At Project Rulison, the federal government used a 43-ton proton bomb in an attempt to unlock natural gas reserves locked in underground sandstone formations. No commercial drilling ever took place on the site.



Now, more than 30 years later, commissioners approved a request made by Presco, Inc., a Houston-based oil and gas exploration company that wants to drill near the site.

Presco asked the state agency to increase drilling density near Project Rulison from one well per 640 acres to one well every 40 acres on a total of 3,840 acres.

Commissioners confirmed that drilling will not be allowed to go lower than 6,500 feet. The nuclear test occurred at a depth of 8,000 feet.



Presco’s request also stipulated that 40 acres around “ground zero” of Project Rulison would be off limits to drilling.

However, commissioners added modifications and conditions to Presco’s initial request, expanding the no-drill zone to a half-mile radius around the test site – the equivalent of 502 acres. This means that no well can be drilled within that half-mile radius zone without approval from the U.S. Department of Energy, which inherited the Atomic Energy Commission’s mission when it was formed.

“I view this as the DOE’s baby to protect the public health,” said Brian Macke, oil and gas commission deputy director. “I don’t view this as passing the buck. I view it as being managed by people who understand it best. They created it and they have the responsibility for it.”

Presco’s request went through an open hearing in mid-December when anyone opposed to it could voice concerns. By the time it was up for approval at last week’s meeting, the request had been reviewed and recommended for approval by commission staff members.

Macke conducted a study in 1989 of Project Rulison for Garfield County Commissioners, and used that research for his recommendation to approve the Presco’s initial request. But state Oil and Gas Commissioner John Ashby said he wanted proof the test site was safe.

“Can you give me a guarantee?” Ashby asked Macke.

“As much as I can tell you that the sun will come up tomorrow,” said Macke.

Ashby’s concerns over possible water contamination and the chances of radioactive material leaking out from what Macke described as a “Thermos,” a sealed underground cavity left behind after the nuclear explosion, led commissioners to expand the drilling restriction.

“I wish we could have a picture of what this cavity looks like,” said Ashby. He added that he didn’t expect a problem with gas contamination, but is concerned about the possibility of radioactivity reaching underground aquifers.

After more than a half hour of discussion, however, Ashby and the other commissioners felt comfortable enough with the larger no-drill zone to approve Presco’s request.

“I don’t see any health and welfare issues,” said commissioner Brian Cree. “I’ve personally gone out to the site and I’ve listened to testimony for 10 years. That gives me enough comfort to recommend approval.”


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