Industry, citizens differ on Rulison blast site’s future
July 16, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The gas industry and those who live near the controversial Rulison blast site differed this week over the appropriate next steps in the ongoing saga of what to do with the site and the valuable gas it contains.
“No drilling should be allowed anywhere near this site,” said Randy Fricke of New Castle, who is interim president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, in written comments presented Wednesday to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a meeting at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.
On the other side of the fence, representatives of Noble Energy, the main gas company working in the area, argued that since there has been no evidence of radioactivity in drilling done within about a mile of the site, they are ready to move closer in their search for new resources.
And that would be just fine with the U.S. Department of Energy, the bureaucratic successor to the Atomic Energy Commission.
It was the AEC that, in 1969, set off an atomic bomb some 8,400 feet below the surface in Rulison in an effort to free up gas fields trapped in the deep rock formations. The bomb, according to some estimates, was three times the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.
The gas was too radioactive to be useful, and the site has been capped and largely out of the public eye until recently, when improved technology and rising prices for natural gas have sparked a boom in Garfield County and other parts of the country.
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The potential hazard from tritium, a radioactive, carcinogenic substance left over from the bomb, is what concerns everyone, from local citizens to industry scientists to the COGCC and the DOE.
The DOE has written up a “Rulison Path Forward” that, based on the assumption that no radiation has been detected so far, calls for private oil companies to continue drilling in an ever-decreasing radius from “ground zero” – the surface location corresponding to the bomb cavity. If radiation is detected, the drilling must either stop or be put on hold for further study to determine if more drilling can be done safely.
But opponents say the DOE’s plan is “a game of chicken,” in the words of critics.
“We became your guinea pigs in that year,” said DOE critic Marion Wells, referring to 1969. “I’m still your guinea pig.”
She said both her parents died of cancer, and that no studies have been done concerning what she feels are elevated cancer rates in the area.
“I have absolutely no faith in the Department of Energy,” she said. “The Path Forward actually steps away from their responsibility,” which she and others believe is to abandon drilling of the area around the site, compensate all landowners for the mineral rights they cannot develop, and move on.
Only one of the citizen speakers on Wednesday, Roy Savage, praised the DOE for its work and endorsed the Path Forward concept.
“We’d like to see the commission move on to other issues,” he said, referring to the COGCC.
But Garfield County, among others, is hoping the COGCC will agree to pressure the DOE to drill its own monitoring wells in the area close to ground zero, to establish exactly where the hazardous radiation is. Then, the agency could compensate the owners of the mineral rights for any gas that can’t be used.
Because the meeting was informal, no decisions were made by the COGCC.