The Boom Years

Twenty-eight years after a nuclear bomb rocked Colorado, its shock waves still reverberate on the Western Slope.

Practically the entire populations of Rifle and Grand Valley (later renamed Parachute) turned out for the blast. They'd been told that while there was no real danger, they should probably leave their homes when the time came. Most went to their respective Main Streets and stood around waiting for the detonation.

Mary Satterfield took her two toddlers down to First Street in Grand Valley. She wanted to share the moment with relatives and found much of the rest of the town gathered along the main drag. "Everybody was excited about it," Satterfield says. "It was the big event."

The front lawn of Grand Valley's only school served as another gathering place. "Whenever we had a gathering of any size, we would go down to the school," remembers Bobbi Wambolt, who grew up in the town. She says the wait for the atomic blast was reminiscent of cookouts, carnivals and fairs held on the school lawn.

"Everybody took a picnic and made a fun afternoon out of it," says Wambolt. "At the time, people weren't nervous because they didn't know anything about it, really." She remembers being irritated by the protesters who'd come in from out of town but says that most of her fellow citizens paid them little mind: "Most of the people in town were farmers and ranchers, and they don't tend to get too upset about anything."

Wambolt also remembers an out-of-town reporter standing on the school lawn, trying to find out if a child was crying because he was afraid of the impending blast. "That child wasn't crying out of fear," Wambolt says. "That child was crying because his mother had just hammered him."

The Atomic Energy Commission set up a large tent to host the muckety-mucks from Austral and CER Geonuclear of Las Vegas, the company set up to conduct the actual field operations. Also sampling the doughnuts were a collection of state and local officials, along with some of the residents who lived inside the buffer zone.

Colorado governor John Love was scheduled to be at the tent the day of the blast. The plan was that Love, state natural resources director Tom Ten Eyck and newly appointed state geologist John Rold would fly to the area in a state plane scheduled to leave Stapleton Airport before sunrise.

When Rold, who'd started work only a few months earlier, got to the plane that morning, he found no Love and no Ten Eyck, just a note. "The note said that I was the one that would be going on behalf of the state and that I would have to give a speech," he recalls. Because of the weather delays, the blast was now set for the same day that Love was hosting a national governors' conference in Colorado Springs.

The bomb was going off, though, governor or no governor. "I considered this a pretty momentous occasion, so I wrote a speech in the plane on the way over that to my mind reflected that," Rold says. His speech focused on the risks that Colorado pioneers had faced through history. In his mind, the Rulison project would have made Colorado's early settlers proud.

Environmentalists had hoped that Love would call a halt to the blast, much like commuting a death sentence at the last minute. Rold did speak to Love on the phone before the blast; he recalls the conversation clearly. "He just asked me one question: 'John, is it going to be safe?'" Rold says. "I had studied it quite hard for a few months, and in my opinion it was, and I said so. I didn't go on and on, because I figured what he needed was just the bottom line."

The governor gave his okay, and Rold gave his speech--or at least most of it.

"I was about three-quarters of the way through the speech when these long-hair extremists came in and sat right up on the platform," Rold says. Many were carrying signs that read "No Contamination Without Representation." "I suppose they were trying to intimidate me, and I suppose they did," says Rold. "My main reaction was that I wanted to give them a knuckle sandwich."

Rold restrained himself, though, and arranged a compromise with the protesters: If he could finish his speech, he'd turn the microphone over to one of them.

That deal sounded good to protester Bruce Polich, a World War II veteran who owned a restaurant in Aspen at the time. He says he thought the idea of the blast was crazy, in part because he believed it might threaten a dam upstream from his hometown. "As the crow flies, Rulison wasn't far from Aspen, which was still a town that was worth saving in those days," he says.

So Polich and a group of other locals invaded the tent just as Rold was nearing the end of his speech. Rold and Polich both remember what happened when Rold finished and Polich stood up to speak: Most of the oil-company executives and local contractors got up and migrated toward the coffee and doughnuts.

"I talked for a little while, and I think some of them paid attention," Polich remembers. "I remember saying that I thought [radioactive] gas was nothing to fool around with, and certainly not something I'd want piped into my home."

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