Rio Blanco and Garfield counties:
A tale of two nuclear gas blasts

<em>(Photo: 7263255, Flickr)</em>

(Photo: 7263255, Flickr)

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, four nuclear devices were exploded underground on Colorado’s Western Slope in an effort to free up commercially marketable amounts of natural gas from dense sandstone formations.

The explosion of one 43-kiloton nuclear device near Rulison in Garfield County in 1969 continues to make headlines 40 years later — with the safety of modern-day drilling in the area one of the likely topics of a July 14-15 meeting in Glenwood Springs — while the simultaneous test shot of three 33-kiloton devices in Rio Blanco County in 1973 remains virtually unknown.

One Garfield County commissioner is calling for the Department of Energy to admit its mistake — gas generated in the blasts was too radioactive for commercial use — and ban drilling in the Rulison area and compensate nearby property owners for lost mineral rights.

“I say, let’s just shut the whole thing down,” John Martin recently told a gathering in Glenwood Springs, according to the Post-Independent newspaper. The DOE currently bans drilling on the 40 acres immediately surrounding the blast site, while the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission prohibits drilling within a half-mile radius.

The DOE just released a draft plan calling for drilling by private companies right up to the half-mile limit, then inside that limit until drilling produces radioactive material or reaches the 40-acre blast site, whichever comes first.

Martin, generally a strong supporter of the natural gas industry, said it’s too unsafe to use privately employed workers to test the area. His strong stance contrasts with his position last spring that much-improved nuclear energy technology should be explored as a means of powering the oil-shale industry on the Western Slope.

“Look at the Rulison blast and all the excitement it’s caused there and that was in 1969, when it’s actually safe and has been monitored since 1969, but you just mention it and Three Mile Island comes to their vision, as well as Chernobyl,” Martin told the Colorado Independent in April. “What are we talking about? Old technology.”

The Rio Blanco blasts were the third and final phase of the Plowshare Project, which sought to find peaceful industrial uses for nuclear weaponry. The first test was Project Gasbuggy in New Mexico, followed by Rulison.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Rulison and Rio Blanco is that Rulison is only eight miles southeast of the town of Parachute and 12 miles southwest of Rifle, with heavy natural gas drilling and more conventional fracturing — using water, sand and chemicals instead of nukes — occurring throughout the area. Since the blast, Interstate 70 has pushed through the area and brought with it big-time residential and commercial development.

In the last U.S. Census, Garfield County had a population of nearly 44,000 and Rio Blanco County only had about 6,300 residents. The Rio Blanco blast site itself is very remote, described by the DOE as 52 miles north-northeast of Grand Junction.

“Because the nearest private residence is many miles away up here in Rio Blanco County, there really is no one living close to [the blast site],” Rio Blanco County Commissioner Ken Parsons told the Colorado Independent. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t know which well it is and where it’s at, you’d just drive right past it on our County Road 69 and never even know the difference.”

But Parsons said he understands why some people would be worried as development encroaches on the old blast sites.

“[Rulison] was really remote back in the early ’70s. But as people start moving closer I think there are greater concerns,” he said. “I’m not terribly concerned about it myself [in Rio Blanco County].”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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