Energy company to stay clear of Colorado nuke blast zone |

Energy company to stay clear of Colorado nuke blast zone

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado ” An energy company drilling for natural gas near an underground nuclear blast in Colorado says it won’t seek permits to drill closer at least through 2010.

Noble Energy Co. is extending its voluntary moratorium on seeking permits within a half-mile of the Project Rulison site in western Colorado.

But the company told Garfield County commissioners Monday that it plans to drill more than 40 new wells within three miles of the site, which is about 50 miles northeast of Grand Junction.

Concerns about possible releases of radioactive contamination from the underground explosion have increased as more wells have been drilled closer to the site. A nuclear bomb was detonated 8,426 feet below the surface in 1969 to free up natural gas, which was deemed too radioactive to sell.

The Department of Energy prohibits drilling within 40 acres of the site. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which issues drilling permits, alerts DOE when companies apply for drilling permits within three miles and requires a hearing for permits within a half-mile.

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The state imposes more stringent conditions the closer the well is to ground zero and requires sampling of the gas. The closest well is seven-tenths of a mile from the blast site.

Noble officials say staying out of the half-mile zone will provide more time to collect and analyze data from wells.

Garfield County officials want the DOE to drill test wells to make sure it’s safe for energy companies and area residents. The commissioners recently sent a letter to Colorado’s congressional delegation and the DOE asking for field tests so companies drilling near Rulison in western Colorado don’t end up playing “a game of chicken.”

The DOE’s Office of Legacy Management, which oversees the Project Rulison site, has said it believes there is enough data to say it’s safe to drill within a half-mile if it’s phased in so the results can be monitored.

The DOE says most of the radioactivity from the explosion was trapped in a glass dome that formed when melted and vaporized rock collected in a puddle with a diameter of about 160 feet and cooled. The government began deactivating and cleaning the area in the 1970s and monitored area groundwater.

A 2007 federal study using computer simulations found that no radioactive contamination above naturally occurring levels reached wells in the current buffer zones 95 percent of the time. The radioactivity in the other 5 percent was extremely low.

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