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June 25, 2009 07:07 AM UTC

The next squeeze of the trigger

  • by: Duke Cox

( – promoted by Colorado Pols)

In 1969, the United States Department of Energy detonated a nuclear explosive device a few thousand feet underground, just a couple of miles up the creek from Battlement Mesa. The DOEs’ attempt at “Mega-Fraccing” didn’t work the way the DOE had hoped and after flaring off nearly 800 million cubic feet of radioactive gas, they shut down the site and went away. What remained, however, was an underground cavity full of radiation and, among other creatures, the people of Battlement Mesa and Parachute.

Fast forward 35 years and witness the arrival of the natural gas boom in the Piceance basin. Natural gas producers, eager to capitalize on the skyrocketing price of gas, began drilling ever closer to the site of the 1969 blast. After repeated requests by local landowners and citizens to prohibit drilling near the radioactive blast site, the Department of Energy and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission continue to play “Rulison Roulette” with the safety and health of the people of Battlement Mesa, Parachute and the surrounding area.

Basing their assurances of safety on DOE computer models that are outdated and incomplete, the COGCC refuses to insist on real, exploratory, research  before continuing to issue drilling permits ever closer to “ground zero”. Garfield County, on the other hand has finally seen enough evidence that the Garfield County Commissioners have asked the DOE to reconsider its’ policy and define the nature and extent of the contamination in an open, public process that is based on information gathered at the site and considered in a thorough scientific inquiry.

It is time for the DOE to put aside 40 years of neglect and take on the responsibility to clean up their mess. As it now stands, there is no adequate scientific basis upon which to establish a safe perimeter for drilling and fraccing around the site. The arbitrary half mile restriction is little more than an educated guess.

I completely agree with the Garfield County Commissioners and join them also in their request to Colorados’ congressional delegation to push for a full, formal inquiry into the policies and activities of the DOEs’ Office of Legacy Management, and to address the question of the DOEs’ refusal to implement a sound and safe development plan based on actual data provided by real research.

The COGCC has announced a hearing in Glenwood Springs on July 15th ( location and time TBA) and has promised that the DOEs’ soon-to- be-released “The Way Forward Plan” will be discussed. Local citizens are likely to turn out in force to see if the new DOE plan is any less insane than the current “Rulison Roulette” plan.    


24 thoughts on “The next squeeze of the trigger

  1. this seems like a real opportunity for bipartisan commonsense to benefit the people, and the environment, of Colorado.  We can protect the people, the trees and the wildlife habitat, or we can let the name Rulison come to be synonymous with Chernobyl. Those vying to govern this state need to take the lead, and show what they can make of such an opportunity.

    1. This is the first I’d ever heard of underground nuclear testing in Colorado, although maybe it’s old news to the folks in Garfield County.

      The DOEs’ attempt at “Mega-Fraccing” didn’t work the way the DOE had hoped and after flaring off nearly 800 million cubic feet of radioactive gas, they shut down the site and went away.


      1. More like an experiment.

        There was a program that started back in the Kennedy administration that looked for peaceful uses of nuclear explosives.  Some of the proposed uses were things like digging a new Panama canal.

        It was called Operation Plowshare or the Plowshare Program (as in beating swords into plowshares).

        Stimulating tight gas sands was another proposed use.  The first explosion was Project Gasbuggy near Farmington, NM. It was marginally successful. Rulison was the second test. There were supposed to be other blasts in the series, one of which was to be in the Green River Basin near Pinedale, WY (Project Wagon Wheel); another was scheduled for somewhere in Rio Blanco County. The experiments were canceled after the gas from the Rulison explosion proved too radioactive to use.

        Although the target formation is the same as what was stimulated by the blast (Mesaverde), I believe the exact horizons proposed for the current drilling are not the same as the zones that were fractured by the explosion. The potential bad actor is Tritium (an isotope of hydrogen), which, being a very small molecule, can migrate all over hell.  

        I don’t trust the modeling that was done.  Nobody else should either, IMHO.  There’s plenty of gas in the Piceance basin.  They don’t need to drill near the blast site.

        1. Is the tritium a decay byproduct of neutron-irradiated elements, or was it produced in the blast?

          If the latter – tritium’s half-life is 12.33 years – so there will come a day when the level of tritium is not measurable.  Right now, we are only 3 half-lives away from the initial event, so I expect that about 13% of the original tritium is still there.

          If the former, it is possible that the tritium level is nearly unchanged from the original event; radioactive heavy elements could have half lives in the thousands of years.

          1. It’s been years since I even thought about this, but I think the most common way tritium is produced is by the capture of neutrons generated in the blast by garden-variety Nitrogen.  Nitrogen plus a neutron decays to Carbon 12 plus Tritium.  Tritium is also a direct product of fission.

          1. the vast majority of people in NW Colorado have no idea that Project Rio Blanco even took place and to my knowledge no monitoring of the area is done whatsoever.

            1. here

              It’s apparently being monitored, at least somewhat.  From the fact sheet:

              Since 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) has annually monitored ground water and surface water at and near the Rio Blanco Site as part of a long-term hydrologic monitoring program. EPA annually samples 15 locations on and around the site, including 4 springs, 4 surface sites, and 5 wells, 3 of which are located near surface ground zero. No radioactive materials attributable to the Rio Blanco test have been detected in water samples.

              1. The DOE’s Office of Legacy Management produced this report in 2007.

                It’s been a couple of years since I looked at it and nukes and computer simulations are not my forte so I can’t really give you too much in terms of a summary.

                But I do recall, the reason tritium movement was modeled was two-fold: since tritium is such a small critter, it would likely move the fastest of any of the radioactive nuclides; also, tritium can be incorporated into both water and methane and thus become a part of compounds that lots of people find worth pulling to the surface.

                From what I’ve heard through the grapevine, personnel from the Office of Legacy Management will be providing an update of their studies at the COGCC’s July 14-15 hearings in Glenwood Springs. This should be a good time to get better informed and to express your concerns.

                Project Rulison’s forgotten little sister, Project Rio Blanco, was along Fawn Creek and located at 39.79313N, 108.36726W. (In case you want to use Google Earth or something to take a look. It doesn’t glow or anything, but some of the more savvy of you might be able to link a nuclear blast photo to the location!!)

                Thanks Duke for bringing this up. It’s timely and noteworthy. Thanks Ralphie for the additional background.

                1. Maybe Colorado Pols could have a Western Slope Meetup in Glenwood Springs in mid-July and then participants could give DOE, COGCC, and GarCo Commissioners a piece of their collective minds?

                  There’s a mighty fine brew pub just across from the Amtrak station! And a pedestrian bridge across I-70 to the hot springs!  

        2. You mentioned the O & G companies apparently aren’t planning on drilling into the formation where the experimental blast occurred but are they planning on drilling into a formation below that one where they would have to drill through the blast area?

          1. There are institutional controls on 40 acres surrounding the blast site.  COGA is required to notify the feds whenever anyone wants to drill within 1/2 a mile.  That’s what’s at issue now I think, although I haven’t read the report that was released yesterday.

            Under no circumstances can anyone drill into the blast zone.

  2. And many of them “buy” the industry (and government) garbage that’s been fed to folks since the post-War (1950’s) development of nuclear power and the nuclear fuel cycle.  I get concerned about elected officials (at all levels of government) who do not have the interest and/or do not take the time to educate themselves about key policy and public safety issues.

  3. Every governmental entity that has looked at this question has pronounced it safe to drill in this area.  Multiple state agencies (including CDPHE and COGCC) spent signficant time over the last few years analyzing data and determining that drilling should be allowed to go forward.

    Duke and the rest of the Western Colorado Congress folks wonder why their organization is in a shambles and nobody wants to give them money anymore.  It is because of positions they take on issues like this.

    They discount all science and data and appeal to emotion with the singular goal of stopping all human development on this planet.

    R.I.P. WCC

  4. We have had a big debate in the Daily Sentinel: Why is WCC broke and are they relevant?  Yes they are broke and Duke is an example of why they are not relevant.   Emotion over truth.  DOE, COGCC, and CDPHE have all agreed to cautious approach.  A study even appears in today’s Daily Sentinel confirming the repeated findings.  Maybe it is Duke Cox who is irrelevant.    Maybe WCC path forward is to rid itself of the leadership who have lead them for 10 years and continue to undermine WCC credibility.  

    Yo WCC.  Cut the dead wood.  Try honesty over emotion.   Try collaboration over headlines.  Find new leaders instead of Cox, Grant, Kerr and Spehar.  

    The act has worn thin.  People are voting with their checkbooks.    

    1. Is there something in the water that jpj & coop are drinking?

      The COGCC & CDPHE have no data of their own. They are dependent upon the “data” provided by DOE. Unfortunately, DOE has classified most of their data and are only releasing it in dribs and drabs.

      Basically, all the agencies (state & federal) have said is “Let’s let the O&G operators keep drilling closer and closer to ground zero until they hit something radioactive. Then we’ll tell them to back off.”

      O&G doesn’t like this, they are being saddled with being guinea pigs. This whole approach is unsatisfactory. DOE has made predictions with their simulation model, but they are not taking the steps to test the model (letting O&G take the risks instead). People who live near ground zero and those who own mineral rights near ground zero are all losing.

      Someone needs to test the model. My understanding is that both Garfield County and WCC want the feds to take on this responsibility (and risk).

      What’s wrong with this? Or do YOU prefer emotion over facts?

    2. If you keep poking a stick in the dark places, sooner or later something comes out to bite you. I guess all I can say to that is; I am honored to be mentioned with the other three gentlemen on the list. Can I add Garfield County Commissioner John Martin (who agrees with us) to that group?

      Here is an analogy to the DOEs'”cautious approach”. You, dear reader, stand behind a black curtain about ten feet in front of me and be “vewwy, vewwy, quiet”, I will then fire my revolver at a place where I think is two feet to the left of your head. If I don’t hit you, I will aim at a spot I think is about two feet from your head and fire again. I will continue to move closer and closer to where I think your head is until one of two things happens…I get to within 6 inches of where I think your head should be or I hear a shriek and a “thump”, thus ending the experiment.

      The people I really think are at risk are the workers in the area.  

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