GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Marion Wells lives about 10 miles from “ground zero” in Garfield County, the Project Rulison blast site where a 43-kiloton nuclear device was exploded nearly 8,500 feet underground in 1969 in an effort to free up commercially viable natural gas.
“We became your guinea pigs in that year; I am still your guinea pig; and I don’t like being your guinea pig,” Wells told U.S. Department of Energy officials at a meeting of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) Wednesday. “There is an 800-pound gorilla sitting in this county; it’s called Project Rulison. You are playing roulette with my life and the lives of my neighbors.”
The DOE laboriously explained all morning why modeling conducted at numerous underground atomic blast sites in Nevada shows there is little risk of radioactive contamination 40 years after the Rulison explosion, therefore making natural gas exploration closer and closer to the blast site feasible.
Part of Project Plowshares in the 1960s and 70s, aimed at finding peaceful, industrial uses for atomic weapons, Project Rulison was largely deemed a failure because the natural gas produced was too radioactive for commercial use and had to be flared off.
Now the DOE has presented a “path forward” that would allow private oil and gas companies to drill right up to a half-mile radius established by the state (the closest wells currently are 3,800 feet from the blast site) and then within that boundary and right up to a 40-acre area around ground zero imposed by the feds.
That doesn’t sit well with most area residents and even some Garfield County officials who want a half-mile ban kept in place and mineral rights owners compensated for their losses. Wells took it a step further, accusing the feds of knowingly endangering local residents and contributing to higher cancer rates.
“My parents were given no notice that you were flaring contaminated gas, and yet both my parents died of cancer,” she said. “Cancer is prevalent in this area, and yet no one has studied those causes and effects.”
Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a geologist and consultant for the county, said the most prudent course of action is to drill a test well near ground zero and be certain that the levels of radioactive tritium and krypton are within an acceptable range in order to keep drilling closer and closer to the blast site.
“For real certainty we need real data,” Thyne said in response to DOE modeling. Thyne added that the county commissioners – one of whom, Trési Houpt, sits on the COGCC state regulatory board as well – support the concept of pressuring the DOE to drill a test well near the blast site.
But industry representatives contend they have already gathered plenty of real data from dozens of wells within a mile of the blast site and that the sampling of gas, water, soil and air that they conduct costs an extra $30,000 per well already and has so far turned up no signs of radioactive contamination.
Drilling a test well close to the blast site, which Noble Energy priced at about $2 million, would be rash, according to industry officials, one of whom said, “We think it is a lot more prudent to approach it slowly, because if you were to hit the radiation [with a test well], it would create a contamination problem.”
Noble officials said they have no plans to apply for well permits within the state’s half-mile perimeter in the next year, although they acknowledged plans can change based on the price of natural gas. When they do apply for a permit inside the half-mile radius, the COGCC would have to hold another hearing on the application.
That was good enough for at least one member of the COGCC. Mark Cutright said most of the other alternatives to the DOE’s “path forward” presented at Wednesday’s meeting are outside the state’s jurisdiction.
Besides drilling a test well, those alternatives include setting up an independent scientific panel to continue to study the situation, recognizing that some areas simply won’t be drilled, and swapping the lost mineral rights of local landowners for other federal leaseholds so the DOE wouldn’t have to directly pay compensation. A fourth option is maintaining the status quo.
“Our path forward is we’ve got a great plan in place, probably no plan like this in the nation in terms of monitoring wells, and it’s working,” Cutright said, suggesting the state’s attorney general needs to work with the feds on financial settlements because that’s outside the jurisdiction of the COGCC.
Harris Sherman, head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the COGCC, concluded the meeting by saying the majority of the commission members needed time to digest the nearly seven hours of testimony before reaching any conclusions.
“I suggest we reconsider this issue at a later point in time — hopefully sooner rather than later,” he said, alluding to the DOE’s plans to move ahead with their “path forward” by August. “I do agree that the role and jurisdiction of this commission is limited, so we need to keep that in mind.”