New era of drilling brings up blast from the past
“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”- Isaiah 2:4As natural gas development kicks into ever higher gear in Garfield County, operators have had to look to the margins of the Piceance Basin for the resource. As a National Forest employee once expressed the analogy, the “low fruit on the tree has all been picked.” One developer, Presco Inc., of The Woodlands, Texas, believed they found a likely area in the southernmost reaches of the gas-rich Piceance Basin. But there was a slight glitch to their plan to lease private lands for gas exploration. In 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission, in partnership with Austral Oil, of Houston, and CER Geonuclear Corp., of Las Vegas, drilled a natural gas well near Parachute and used a 40-kiloton nuclear explosive to release the gas trapped in the tight sandstone of the underlying Mesaverde formation.Now, 37 years later, Presco has plans to drill close to the test site. Technology for extracting natural gas from tight sand formations has come a long way from the methods used in the 1960s. Hydraulic fracturing to release gas from the rock opened the Piceance Basin for gas recovery at the turn of the century and has made it one of the most active drilling areas in the country.But many of those who lived in western Garfield County in the ’60s remember the nuclear blast and fear the consequences of reopening the Pandora’s Box of Project Rulison.The year 1969 was momentous not only for Garfield County but for the nation. It was a time of unprecedented unrest and social turmoil.On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. During the dog days of August, Woodstock became a city of 500,000 people for a few riotous days of music, drugs and free love. Demonstrations against the war in Vietnam peaked when 250,000 protesters marched on Washington on Nov. 15. The next day, newspapers across the country reported the massacre, a year earlier, of hundreds of women, children and old men in the small village of My Lai, in south Vietnam.By 1969, Bobby and John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were dead and racial riots gripped cities across the country. For a handful of scientists and government men, the 1960s saw the unfolding of a dream they believed would bring the United States tremendous prosperity. The vehicle of that dream was the power of the atom bomb.President Harry S. Truman created the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946, transferring the control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands. His action reflected the country’s postwar optimism. Congress declared atomic energy should be used not only for nuclear weapons, but also to promote world peace and strengthen private enterprise. A small group of scientists, some of whom had participated in the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to end the world war, sought to turn the devastating power of the bomb to peaceful use. Among them was Edward Teller, who has been called “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Teller was a staunch advocate of using nuclear explosives for industrial applications. Around 1958, he proposed a plan for harnessing the energy of the atomic bomb for peaceful purposes. Called Project Plowshare – the name was taken from the Bible – Teller’s vision included creating a new canal across Nicaragua to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He also proposed a plan to scour out a new harbor for shipping in Alaska. Another plan involved blasting land on the side of California’s Sacramento Valley for a water transportation project.A less ambitious, and technically feasible plan, was to use nuclear explosives to stimulate or fracture the tight sandstone formations in western Colorado and Wyoming that held huge deposits of natural gas. At that time there was no conventional method to free that gas.Fracturing with nuclear explosives brought Project Plowshare to the Piceance Basin in 1969.The first test of a nuclear explosion, dubbed Project Gasbuggy, was near Aztec, N.M., on Dec. 10, 1967. The second, Project Rulison, was set for Sept. 4, 1969, on the north slope of Battlement Mesa, about 12 miles southeast of Parachute, then known as Grand Valley.A third test, Project Rio Blanco, involved the simultaneous detonation of three 30-kiloton nuclear explosives in one well – at various depths – in the northern Piceance Basin on May 17, 1973. Project Rio Blanco effectively marked the end of Project Plowshare. A fourth test slated to take place in Wyoming was canceled.Chester McQueary organizesFor Chester McQueary, who lives in Fort Collins, the idea of using an atomic blast to free up natural gas was crazy. That the AEC would use a “massive explosion the way (it used the atomic bomb) to incinerate whole cities and millions of people for a peaceful use” just didn’t make much sense.In late summer of 1969, McQueary was in Denver working for the American Friends Service Committee, whose mission was to oppose the war in Vietnam.”We’d heard about the (atomic) bombs (being tested) in Nevada and the Pacific islands and now they were going to do that in our home state,” he said.In late August and early September, Dick Lamm, who was to become governor of Colorado, filed suit to stop the project. The trial ran on for weeks until a federal judge allowed the project to move forward.McQueary set to work organizing demonstrators willing to stop the test by stationing themselves close to ground zero.”In all the energy of the time, we speculated about how many people we could get on that mountain,” he said. With enough people, hundreds or maybe thousands, perhaps the AEC would get the hint and call a halt.”We were really thinking big,” he said.Despite his and others’ best efforts the numbers didn’t materialize.A group of 28 demonstrators arrived in the area about a week ahead of time. They headed for Doghead Mountain, where the blast was set to take place.”It was a sort of classic Gandhian non-violence” demonstration, he said.The group was dropped off on Morrisania Mesa at night. “We went off into the darkness” toward ground zero, he said.Then the Sept. 4 date was postponed because of unfavorable weather and the test was rescheduled for Sept. 10. “We were prepared to wait it out,” McQueary said. The group spent the following week waiting for the new date to be announced. By the following Sunday, all but 11 intrepid demonstrators had left. After coming back from the mountain to restock their food supply, they headed out again Sunday night. “We spread out over the mountain so we wouldn’t all be in one place,” he said.In the days leading up to the blast, the AEC declared an evacuation zone within a five-mile radius around the blast site. People were paid $8 to leave their homes for the day, McQueary said.On Wednesday, Sept. 10, McQueary and Margaret Puls, a student from Boulder, made their way up the mountain. They chose an aspen grove as the place to make their stand. The demonstrators agreed they would set off smoke flares close to the end of the countdown to the blast, he said, to alert officials they were within the evacuation area around ground zero.McQueary said his fear was the blast would vent radiation through a fault in the mountain and he’d be in the way of it.”No one knew the geology of the area.”Twenty minutes before the blast, as the countdown began, McQueary set off his flare. A few minutes later two Air Force helicopters flew over, and someone within the aircraft leaned out a door and shouted down to them. Although they could not hear over the noise of the rotors, McQueary said he must have wanted them to move someplace where the chopper could land so they could be picked up.”We had come too far (at that point). I had no notion of cooperating,” he said.McQueary and his companion lay down on the ground and listened to the countdown on a battery-powered radio. As zero approached, he and Margaret looked into each other’s faces. “We saw fear there,” he said.At 3 p.m. a 43-kiloton nuclear “device” was detonated 8,426 feet below the ground surface.According to documents declassified by the Department of Energy in the mid-1990s, in anticipation of the energy that could be unleashed by the blast, the AEC ordered roadblocks in areas deemed at risk for rockfall. A total of 23 coal mines were evacuated, including the Somerset mines near Paonia and the Cameo and Redcliff mines near Grand Junction.Airspace up to 15,000 feet above ground zero was patrolled by military aircraft and closed to civilian traffic in a five-nautical-mile radius around ground zero.Surveillance “missions” were flown a week before the blast because, according to a 1973 Department of Energy report, there had been “intelligence reports of protesters camping in the mountains.”The electrical cables leading from the observation site where the blast was detonated a couple of miles away from ground zero were also guarded.The nuclear explosive, produced at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, measured 9 inches in diameter and 17 feet long and weighed 1,250 pounds. Upon detonation, it released the equivalent of 40,000 tons of TNT.”Then it went off and we felt a deep rumble. It lifted us in the air six to eight inches,” McQueary said. Later he heard people who were on the valley floor during the blast say they could see the ripple of the shock wave moving across the ground. They felt the aftershocks of the blast, which registered on seismographs installed nearby and at the earthquake center at the School of Mines in Golden.”We stood up and realized we were in one piece,” he said. The couple headed off back to Morrisania Mesa wondering if they’d be arrested for violating the evacuation order.There were no arrests of the demonstrators. McQueary believes the AEC didn’t want any more negative publicity.”They let us be.”The aftermath of the blastIn the minutes after the blast rocks were seen to fall from cliffs nearby, chimneys and walls cracked in the evacuation zone. No one was injured, however, and no major impacts to buildings were reported.While AEC reported no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere at the time of the blast, seven months later gas containing radioactive elements was released during flaring operations, despite two lawsuits filed in Denver federal court to stop it. The following March, the AEC permitted Austral to reenter the well where the explosive was detonated. Over a 10-month period gas was flared periodically to test both its volume and the amount of radioactivity it contained.According to the 1973 AEC report, gas sampled during flaring was 300 to 400 times lower than the exposure guideline for two radioactive elements of concern, tritium and krypton. In October 1970, the levels of tritium and krypton stood at 170 picocuries, significantly lower, the AEC said, than the maximum exposure level for the human population of 167,000 picocuries of tritium per liter of air, and for krypton, 100,000 picocuries.In 1972, AEC began cleanup of the site eventually removing all the equipment except the well head and removing contaminated soil and drilling mud. It declared the site abandoned in 1976. Today only a plaque marks the site.AEC also undertook a widespread environmental testing program that involved testing samples of milk from dairies and ranches, as well as air samples, on the West Slope. According to the AEC report, no significant radioactivity was detected in any samples.The Environmental Protection Agency continues to test water quality around the Project Rulison site.This year, the Department of Energy will undertake a study of the subsurface of the test site to determine the extent, if any, of radioactivity.The Big QuestionHow successful was the Rulison test? It depends on your point of view. Declassified DOE documents relating to the Rulison blast and clean up pronounced the test a technical success. DOE, which eventually absorbed the activities of the AEC after that agency was abolished in 1974, has maintained that no harmful radioactivity is now or has been associated with the Project Rulison blast.But the natural gas produced from the Rulison well was never offered for commercial sale.In a paper delivered during a natural gas symposium at the Colorado School of Mines in 1976, Gerald Luetkehans, vice president of CER Geonuclear Corp., said a study of the Rulison gas by Colorado Interstate Gas Co. “found that the regulatory problems associated with the utilization of radioactive by-product material were substantial.” The length of time to acquire the necessary permits to market radioactive gas as well as the prohibitive cost “discouraged further efforts in marketing of the gas which is particularly unfortunate when one considers that the Rulison gas is a safe supply of a scarce commodity and is available in a much needed location.”Further, the cost of Project Rulison, estimated to be about $6.5 million, actually came in at $11 million. By comparison, natural gas wells in the Piceance Basin today cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to drill.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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