Oil and gas auditor used to hot spots
Doug Dennison seems to take a lot in stride. After working at some of the hottest nuclear production sites in the country, Garfield County’s oil and gas auditor continues to maintain his aplomb as the go-to guy for complaints about natural-gas operations hereabouts.Dennison grew up in Gunnison. He graduated with a geology degree in 1981 from Western State College, in his home town. It wasn’t the best of years for geologists, because the once explosive energy boom in the West was on the wane. Fresh out of college, Dennison couldn’t find a job in his chosen field, petroleum geology.He did land a job that January as a mud logger, analyzing oil and gas drilling fluids or mud. The job was short lived and when he was laid off, “I wasn’t too disappointed,” he admitted.An interest in mining led him to the gold mines around Lake City, where he prospected the modern way, through core drilling, for new gold locations and also worked in an operating gold mine.Summers were fun in the remote mountain town, but winters were tough, Dennison said. “It’s pretty quiet in the winter,” he said.In 1984, Dennison went back to school, this time for a masters degree, to Eastern Washington University, located outside of Spokane. He pursued a geochemistry degree, knowing the program had a professor with good connections with the mining industry. But once again his plan was foiled.”The price of gold went in the tank,” he laughed. “My timing was horrible.”But Dennison had met a fellow student who’d graduated from the program a year or so earlier and had been hired on at Hanford, one of the largest plutonium production plants in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Department of Energy. Hanford, in southeastern Washington, was built in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since terminating its weapons production in 1989, Hanford has also become the world’s largest nuclear cleanup site.
Dennison’s friend called one day in 1987 with a tip that a position for a geochemist had opened. He applied and got the job.Dennison was put to work monitoring groundwater on the 586-square mile site. “It had half a dozen (nuclear) reactors that produced plutonium that was shipped to Rocky Flats (west of Denver),” Dennison said. Rocky Flats used the plutonium to make military weapons.Dennison lived in nearby Richland, a company town built by the Department of Defense during Hanford’s construction.”Thousands of people were employed to build it,” Dennison said. Under close security, those who lived in Richland were not free to come and go at will. “You were basically captive there.”While Dennison was at Hanford, the Environmental Protection Agency declared it a superfund site and massive cleanup of its nuclear waste began.One day while investigating an area of the site, Dennison hit some “nasty rusty orange stuff.” One of the workers around the drilling site took the gunk out of a drill tube. “By the time I realized what it was, he’d wiped it on his pants and got in his truck,” Dennison said.He called in the situation to the office and soon the radiation technicians came with red lights flashing. Fortunately the man hadn’t eaten his lunch and ingested the contaminated waste. He was cleaned up and cleared of radiation.Dennison worked at the site for two years then took a job with Advanced Sciences Inc., a private nuclear cleanup company, who sent him to another hot spot, Oak Ridge, Tenn., also a Manhattan Project site.
After a year at Oak Ridge, Dennison returned to Hanford in 1989. In 1991, the company moved him to Rocky Flats, in the foothills south of Boulder. He was there for 10 years.”I got there just after the FBI raided Rocky Flats and shut it down,” he said. The FBI was called in because of reports that the company that operated the nuclear weapons plant, Rockwell International, was illegally disposing of nuclear waste.”A lot of people got in serious trouble,” Dennison said.Weapons production shut down and long-term cleanup began. “When I got there, they were investigating how badly it was contaminated. There was a room called the Infinity Room where you couldn’t read how much radiation there was because the monitors went off the scale,” he said.In 2001, Dennison could see that the end of Rocky Flats was in sight and he struck out on his own and opened a consulting business. A year later he heard from his brother-in-law in Rifle that Garfield County was looking for someone to deal with the mounting citizen complaints from increasing oil and gas development. He sent in a résumé, but the position didn’t open until March 2003. After the interview, “I knew it would be a big challenge.”That first year Dennison answered a lot of complaints, chiefly about noise and odor from the drilling rigs concentrated south of Rifle and Silt.”That was the time EnCana had stepped up its drilling on the south side of the (Colorado) river,” he said. “I spent a lot of time on Grass Mesa (south of Rifle).”He found the source of odors in the reserve pits and tanks holding drilling fluids that EnCana now empties and burns off right after drilling. It’s also since cut back on the number of rigs it has in the field at one time, he said.
“I give a lot of credit to (EnCana community liaison) Sher Long who was real active in changing how they do things,” Dennison said.That summer, EnCana also targeted the Divide Creek area south of Silt for drilling operations. It was an unfortunate development for the residents there.”They had gone through two to three years with next to no water. They hadn’t been able to cut hay. Then with the prospect of a decent year this company comes along,” Dennison said. “My second or third day here I was invited to a meeting at Divide Creek. I had no idea what I was in for.”Although the job still involves answering complaints, it’s evolved over time. The county is mounting a series of studies to determine the effects of the gas industry. Dennison now oversees an air-quality monitoring program, and will see through socioeconomic, hydrogeological and health-risk studies over the next couple of years.His biggest challenge is not having enough hours in the day to get all he wants done. He’s especially pleased about the formation of the Energy Advisory Board, a group of citizens and industry representatives who meet monthly on oil and gas issues in the county.”It was a shot in the dark the concept would even work,” he said. “Even though we have a few hiccups it works out really well.”What Dennison would really like to see is eventual “peaceful co-existence” between the community and industry. But he acknowledges that’s probably a pie-in-the-sky wish. “There’s too much inherent conflict.”Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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The BLM will conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed wells needed to begin the NEPA process on the larger quarry expansion.