When state oil and gas officials convene in Garfield County in July, they may get an earful of opinions from at least one of the county commissioners here.
Commissioner John Martin, who is the longest-serving current member of the Board of County Commissioners, expanded on earlier criticism of the DOE and said recently that he believes the idea of drilling in the neighborhood of the Project Rulison blast site is a bad one altogether.
"I say, let's just shut the whole thing down," Martin said at a recent gathering in Glenwood Springs, referring to the ongoing debate over the possible hazards of drilling for natural gas near the site.
Then, Martin continued, the federal government could compensate the owners of mineral rights in the area that would be closed to future drilling.
The site, located approximately 30 miles west of Glenwood Springs, has been radioactive since 1969, when the DOE detonated a 43-kiloton atomic device deep underground in an effort to get at natural gas reserves. The bomb was exploded at a depth of 8,426 feet, and was viewed as a potential peaceful use of nuclear energy at the time.
But the blast produced less gas than anticipated when it fractured the sandstone formations, and the gas was unusable because it was radioactive, and no technology has been found to remove the contamination.
Scientists worry that hydraulic fracturing nearby could free water or methane contaminated with highly dangerous radioactive tritium and other substances. The DOE controls 40 acres, including the blast site, and forbids drilling there below a depth of 6,000 feet, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission prohibits drilling within one-half mile of the site.
But recently, as noted in a June 3 letter to the DOE from Colorado's U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Mike Bennet, and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, "drilling is moving closer to the blast zone" as gas companies seek new gas fields.
The DOE recently released a Draft Path Forward for Project Rulison which, in essence, calls for drilling by private natural gas companies in phases, starting with explorations outside the half-mile limit established by the COGCC. If wells outside the half-mile limit show no signs of contamination from the nuclear blast, the DOE document calls for drilling rigs to move inside the COGCC line until the wells either turn up radioactive material or come to the edge of the DOE's 40 acre parcel, where all drilling is prohibited.
According to Martin, the potential injury to gas-well workers is too great, and the federal government should simply admit that it has ruined the prospects of property owners and pay up.
"Then you don't have the risks of drilling in that area," he said.
But, he added, the DOE has refused to follow his suggestion, preferring to wait and see if the drillers hit hot pockets close to the "chamber" of high radioactivity left behind by the blast.
"I'm trying to be cautious," Martin declared, arguing that if drilling is to occur, it should be done by the federal government with publicly funded safety measures in place, instead of by private companies.
And, he said, the drillers should not be starting far out from the center of the site and working inward, but should drill close in to see where the radioactive contamination is, then work outward to where it ends.
Beyond that point, he said, the area should be opened up to drilling rigs.
Neither of the other two Garfield County commissioners, Tresi Houpt and Mike Samson, would comment on the draft report, which was released on June 25 and is open to public comment until Aug. 14.
Samson said on Monday that he had not finished the report and preferred to wait to comment until after a pair of COGCC hearings to be held in Garfield County next month. One meeting is scheduled for July 8 in Battlement Mesa, and the other is July 14-15 in Glenwood Springs, at the Hotel Colorado.
"I want to see what the COGCC has to say," Samson told a reporter on Monday, noting that the COGCC is the agency that sets the rules governing the state's oil and gas industry and oversees compliance with those rules.