Project Rulison mineral rights holders get boost

A descendant of the man who owned the land and minerals at the Project Rulison site at the time of the 1969 underground nuclear blast there says two generations is too long to wait for compensation she believes the federal government owes her family.

Now, the claims of Cristy Koeneke and her brother, Craig Hayward, could get some federal attention, thanks to prodding by the Garfield County Commission.

Koeneke and Hayward are the grandchildren of Claude Hayward, whose land south of Rulison was the site of an experiment for producing natural gas.

Hayward died in the early 1970s, and the family no longer owns the land, but Koeneke said it continues to own the mineral rights in the area. She said the government should compensate the family for gas it flared off following the blast and gas it is keeping from being developed because of drilling restrictions.

This past week, county commissioners agreed to send a letter to Colorado’s congressional delegation and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, calling on them to make the Department of Energy drill test holes around the blast site. Commissioners want the agency to determine the extent of radioactive contamination and where it is and isn’t safe to drill, and to compensate those ultimately prevented from having their minerals developed.

The DOE prohibits drilling below 6,000 feet in a 40-acre area around ground zero of the blast site. The gas-rich Mesa Verde geological formation is lower.

The blast took place 8,426 feet underground.

The agency also had opposed any other drilling closer than a half-mile from the blast site, although it would be up to the state to decide whether to approve such drilling should companies pursue it. However, Jack Craig, project manager for the DOE Office of Legacy Management, says the agency now is OK with companies gradually drilling closer than that, as long as their well fracturing activities don’t penetrate the 40-acre exclusion zone.

A 1976 deed restriction that Claude Hayward’s son, the late Lee Hayward, agreed to for $1,500 granted the DOE authority over drilling below 6,000 feet in the exclusion zone.

“We have the full and exclusive rights to regulate and control it,” Craig said.

But Koeneke said DOE oversight didn’t give the government the mineral rights, which the family still owns and pays taxes on.

“What the DOE has done to us is taken away all of our value when they control or freeze our ability to pull minerals off that 40 acres,” she said.

Craig said it would be up to Chu to consider any issues the county raises.

While in Rifle on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said he intended to work with the county to “make sure all the questions are answered” regarding Project Rulison.

The county objects to the DOE relying only on computer models and tests from commercial drilling in the area to conclude where it’s safe to drill.

Luke Danielson is an attorney for some area residents who are worried that commercial drilling could release radioactive contaminants. Danielson said the DOE has failed to keep promises to work in a transparent manner and communicate with the public in connection with its studies of Project Rulison.

“The conduct of the Department of Energy is outrageous,” he said.

Craig said he has met with residents in the area.

“I’ve been very open in discussing things with them, and I’ll continue to do that,” he said.


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