40 years later, dust still hasn’t settled from nuclear blast
The ground rippled when a nuclear blast shattered the earth beneath Doghead Mountain south of Rulison 40 years ago, witnesses remember.
“It was an ocean wave that came across the valley, and you could see it coming at you clear as a bell,” said Cristy Koeneke, who was a college freshman watching the detonation of Project Rulison from an observation tent set up several miles away, across the Colorado River.
The Project Rulison experiment was conducted Sept. 10, 1969. The federal government and private companies were trying to free natural gas from underground sandstone formations. The experiment continues to cause reverberations today because of the nuclear contamination it left behind.
The gas Project Rulison produced was less than anticipated and too radioactive to use. But hydraulic fracturing subsequently has unlocked the enormous gas reserves in the Rulison area and elsewhere in the Piceance Basin.
The process has led to commercial gas development occurring ever-closer to the blast site.
This has created concern among some local residents, Garfield County officials and others, who worry the drilling could bring radioactive contaminants from Project Rulison to the surface.
In a recent letter, Koeneke, who owns mineral rights at the blast site and land nearby, joined fellow landowners in the area and others in accusing the U.S. Department of Energy of allowing oil and gas workers to play “Rulison Roulette” in connection with the site. The department this year made a draft recommendation that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission allow drilling to move gradually closer to the blast site, as long as testing shows no contaminants from the blast are being encountered, and as long as no hydraulic fracturing penetrates a 40-acre zone around the site.
Skeptics of the department’s plan include Jim Martin, who is executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a state oil and gas commissioner.
“I think it would be fair to say that it’s a bit of a mess,” Martin said of the state of affairs surrounding Project Rulison.
Because Project Rulison was the federal government’s undertaking, Martin thinks the Department of Energy and not the state should be taking the lead on what to do once companies start trying to drill within a half-mile of the site. Martin isn’t convinced that drilling would be safe within that area.
“I think that the federal government has a larger responsibility here than they have heretofore been willing to accept,” he said.
But the Department of Energy’s Project Rulison site manager, Jack Craig, said the agency isn’t dodging its obligations, and its draft document reflects that.
“The DOE takes our responsibility of protecting the health and safety of the public and the environment very seriously,” he said.
He also said the federal government doesn’t have regulatory standing regarding drilling permits because that authority falls to the state.
A fuss 40 years ago, too
Had people such as Chester McQueary had their way, the Department of Energy and others wouldn’t be dealing with Project Rulison today. McQueary was among those who objected four decades ago to the nuclear experiment, joining higher-profile opponents such as Richard Lamm, then a young attorney who would become Colorado governor.
McQueary put life and limb on the line to try to stop Project Rulison after a court challenge by Lamm and others failed. Then heavily involved in the antiwar movement during the height of the fighting in Vietnam, McQueary, who is now 73 and lives in Fort Collins, said he and 27 others positioned themselves in the mountains near the blast site. He said their hope was that the Atomic Energy Commission — the Department of Energy’s predecessor — would cancel the blast because of their presence, having decided to pay residents within five miles of the site $8 to evacuate the day of the blast for safety’s sake.
Following days of delays, which the government attributed to poor weather, 11 protesters remained near the blast site when the bomb was detonated. McQueary said he was scared before the blast, not knowing what perils it might pose, and when it happened, it felt like lying next to railroad tracks when a big train rolls by.
“It was that rumbling sense. We guess that we were lifted six, seven inches off the ground,” McQueary said.
Koeneke estimated that the ground rose five or six inches even at the observation tent.
McQueary then saw clouds of dust that he feared had come from the underground explosion. It turned out the dust came from a nearby cliff that had shed rock from a resulting earthquake, which exceeded magnitude 5 on the Richter scale.
According to news reports, rocks fell on area roads and people felt a slight tremor even in Grand Junction. Hundreds of claims for payments, if not more, were filed with the government for reimbursement for damage to homes and other structures.
Project Rulison was part of the government’s Plowshare Program, which had a goal of using nuclear explosions for peacetime purposes such as building canals and excavating highway routes through mountains. Project Rulison was the second experiment aimed at natural gas development, having been preceded by a 1967 blast in New Mexico.
A third, Project Rio Blanco, occurred in 1973 in Rio Blanco County and involved the near-simultaneous detonations of three bombs down a single well hole. Its results proved similar to Project Rulison’s, and thus also a disappointment. Project Rio Blanco also had faced opposition, and in 1974 Coloradans voted to require a vote of the people before further nuclear detonations occur in the state.
For a while, Plowshare supporters envisioned setting off numerous nuclear bombs to harvest natural gas riches of the Piceance Basin. But the notion of repeated earthquakes and of radioactive contamination of water, the environment and public health unnerved McQueary and others. It even raised concerns among oil shale interests that the bombs could jeopardize possible development of that resource.
The promise of jobs
When Claude Hayward granted the government the right to set off the Project Rulison bomb beneath his land, he had the community’s interests in mind, said Koeneke, his granddaughter.
“He thought this was a way to bring some prosperity to the area. That’s what they told him: ‘There are going to be jobs,’ ” she said.
She said her late father, Lee Hayward, urged Claude Hayward not to agree to the deal. But negotiators kept coming back. Eventually, over a bottle of whiskey, they got a man who was in his 70s and had an eighth-grade education to sign on, Koeneke said. She said he was to get $100 a month if the project ever made a profit, but that he never received any such payments.
Claude Hayward died a few years after the blast. In 1976, Lee Hayward received $1,500 for agreeing to a deed restriction that granted the federal government authority over drilling more than 6,000 feet beneath the 40 acres surrounding the blast site.
The Department of Energy prohibits drilling in the area it controls, known as the exclusion zone. The blast site is more than 8,000 feet deep. Based on computer modeling, the department believes any radioactive contaminants from the blast are contained within the exclusion zone, and that gas development outside of it ultimately will be shown to be safe.
Others, such as Garfield County and state health department officials, have called for test drilling near the blast site to provide definitive data. But Craig, the site manager, said his agency is hesitant to drill into locations where it knowingly would find tritium and other radioactive substances.
“We don’t believe that it’s prudent to bring the radionuclides back up to the surface for purposes that don’t seem to get us anything other than to show that they’re there,” he said.
Meanwhile, as drilling within three miles of the blast site has expanded, the state has imposed requirements on energy companies to limit drilling and provide for testing for blast contaminants and for implementation of a response plan should they be found. None has been found to date.
Should companies want to begin drilling within a half-mile of the blast site, their drilling applications would be subject to a hearing before the oil and gas commission.
Commission staff have voiced confidence in the regulatory regime the state has in place at Project Rulison. Commission Director David Neslin said the process “provides responsible protection” to the public and the environment.
Noble Energy has been drilling most aggressively around Project Rulison and is confident about the safety of those operations. In an oil and gas commission meeting in July, company representatives spoke in general support of the Department of Energy’s recommendations for letting commercial drilling approach the blast site in a slow and methodical manner.
Besides their concerns about the safety of drilling near Project Rulison, Garfield County commissioners want mineral rights owners to be compensated for minerals that can’t be developed because of the blast.
Koeneke said drilling restrictions are necessary at Project Rulison, but that it’s time that she and her brother, Craig Hayward, are reimbursed for their inability to have their mineral rights developed in the area. She said that includes the rights within the 40-acre exclusion zone, which the Department of Energy never acquired.
“We’re just saying we need to be free of Project Rulison and the DOE. It has been 40 years,” she said.
Craig said the Department of Energy doesn’t control drilling outside the 40 acres and is confident drilling can safely occur elsewhere. The department’s position is that the 1976 deed restriction precludes the need for further compensation for mineral rights in the exclusion zone, he said.
Meanwhile, the department is working on a response to comments it has received on its draft recommendation regarding Project Rulison. Craig said it plans to hold a public forum on Project Rulison before making a final recommendation sometime after the end of the year.