Drilling at Rulison site will remain | AspenTimes.com

Drilling at Rulison site will remain

Dennis Webb
Garfield County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. ” A U.S. Department of Energy official says it makes sense to maintain current drilling restrictions around the Project Rulison nuclear blast site while a future management plan for the area is considered.

Tom Pauling, an environment team leader for the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management, declined to make any preliminary recommendations Tuesday for management changes based on a new DOE computer modeling study that analyzes the danger of drilling near the site.

He told the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a meeting in Grand Junction that he doesn’t want to pre-empt scientific discussion of the study, and also wants to give COGCC staff a chance to study it.

“The model is a tool. It’s an initial step. It’s certainly not the final word,” Pauling said.

The long-awaited study found a 95 percent chance of no contamination by a key radioactive isotope at a hypothetical well producing gas just outside the current drilling exclusion area at the site.

Project Rulison involved the underground detonation of a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb 8,426 feet underground on Sept. 10, 1969, outside Rulison and Battlement Mesa. The experiment was an attempt to free up commercially marketable quantities of natural gas, but the gas it produced proved to be too contaminated.

The DOE prohibits drilling lower than 6,000 feet in a 40-acre area around the site. The COGCC requires a hearing for any gas wells proposed for drilling within a half-mile of the site.

The state notifies the federal government of wells to be drilled within 3 miles of the blast site.

“I’m comfortable with that going forward until we can come to a more definitive path forward,” Pauling said.

No decisions on drilling around Project Rulison were scheduled for Tuesday. Rather, the meeting was for the benefit of the many new members of the COGCC, including Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt. In addition, it comes in response to increasing drilling by energy companies near Project Rulison, and interest by those companies in revisiting the rules that would govern that drilling.

“We really are trying to educate ourselves in a preliminary way about these issues,” said Harris Sherman, chairman of the COGCC and executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

COGCC director Brian Macke, who authored a past report on Project Rulison, said the geological character of underground formations being drilled for natural gas limits the chances of nuclear contaminants reaching wells drilled in surrounding areas. Those formations consist of stacked, sandstone “lenses” that are just a few hundred feet across and generally don’t connect to each other, he said.

The DOE says the most likely pathway for contamination from the detonation zone to the surface would be via a producing gas well, through water vapor tainted by tritium, a radioactive isotope.

The hypothetical well site the DOE studied lies 258 meters west of the blast site. Researchers ran more than 500 different models before determining that in 95 percent of them, contamination of the well by the tritium would not occur.

COGCC member Richard Alward on Tuesday pressed Pauling and others involved with the study about whether it’s correct to interpret that as meaning there is only a 5 percent chance of contamination occurring from drilling.

Alward said in an interview later that he questions that figure, and didn’t get the clarification he sought Tuesday.

“It’s something I’d like to know before drawing conclusions,” he said.

If, for example, some of the 500 models are based on geological assumptions that are more likely than others, the odds would change, Alward said.

COGCC member Mark Cutright questioned why some gas wells near the blast site weren’t tested for radioactive contamination until as many as nine months later.

“You’d hate to look back in three months and say, ‘Whoops, I wish we’d done something different,'” he said.

Wesley Kent, who owns 14 of the 40 acres in the area of the blast site, questioned in an interview why government officials are citing gas and water monitoring tests by Presco that have found no contamination. Presco drilled near the blast site and was cited by the state for drilling pit violations before selling its local interests to Noble Energy.

“Everything with Presco’s name on it ought to be stricken. It’s tainted,” Kent said. “How can you use data from that company? That really appalls me.”

Commission member Joshua Epel worried about the fact that the DOE is asking the public to trust its study, but has kept information about radioactive constituents and concentrations classified because it worries what some other countries might do with such information.

“I think having as much of that information public or at least available would enhance the credibility of the agency,” he said.

Houpt asked whether the COGCC might want to hold off on approving further drilling permits within the three-mile radius until the agency decides how it wants to proceed with drilling in that area. Epel said that wouldn’t be fair for procedural reasons because Tuesday’s meeting was supposed to be informational only.

However, Macke agreed at Harris’ urging to have COGCC staff consult with state health department officials before issuing any more permits within the three-mile radius.