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The Boom Years

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

However, the protesters' point of view took hold even in the U.S. Congress, which killed all federal funding for Project Plowshare in 1975.

Rulison remained a forgotten footnote in Colorado history for more than a quarter-century. It came bubbling back to the surface this past September 19, when a column of natural gas blew out a private water well at Wendell Goad's home near Rifle. A plume of water and natural gas shot twenty feet into the air for most of the day before crews could control it.

The blowout at the Goad place quickly got the attention of people in Rifle and the retirement community of Battlement Mesa. That's because the gas had come to the surface about 4,000 feet away from the well where it was being mined. Nearly everyone in the area lives within a mile of a natural gas well--or will, now that the state has given energy companies the green light to drill hundreds of new wellheads. For residents who'd already been protesting the new state guidelines, the Goad geyser was the last straw. "They say it won't happen again, but they also said that it wouldn't happen in the first place," says K.C. Binger, who moved to the area three years ago with her husband and two small children.

Over the past four years, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (OGCC) has granted requests by energy companies to increase the legal density of wells in the Rulison and Grand Valley gas fields, from one every 640 acres to one every 20 acres. With the increased drilling have come increased concerns about gas contamination of water wells--and about radioactivity, since crews are poking holes in the same area as the nuclear blast.

In response to those fears, the Department of Energy has run several tests of wells near ground zero. Those tests have found no evidence of radioactivity. However, many residents remain dubious of the DOE's claims; one of them is Russ George, the Republican state representative from Rifle. George was a student at Harvard Law School at the time of the Rulison blast. He says he distinctly remembers going down to the student union to watch it on television. "The people who did the explosion in the first place are now the same people telling us that it's safe," says George. "I have no confidence in them."

George has been negotiating with landowners and the OGCC to force gas companies to better address the concerns of "surface owners" like Binger, who are legally obligated to let energy companies onto their land to pursue mineral-rights claims. As a result of those negotiations, a series of public hearings were held last week in Greeley, Rifle and Durango.

OGCC director Rich Griebling says claims that his agency hasn't taken public complaints seriously are untrue; he points to last week's hearings as evidence that the commission is interested in hearing both sides of the issue. Gas companies working in the area are doing a good job, Griebling insists: "They are going beyond the requirements in reclaiming the environment and doing other things for the good of the surface owners."

Frank Keller, executive vice president of Barrett Resources Corporation, the company doing most of the drilling in the area, says his company has tried "awfully hard" to meet the needs of surface owners. He says most people in the area support the economic development that comes with drilling, but "there are a vocal few who seem to raise a lot of issues. You just can't please everybody."

A prominent burr in the industry's saddle is Meeker attorney Frank Cooley, one of the longest-serving mineral-rights lawyers in Colorado. Meeker studied geology before opening his legal practice in the early 1950s. In 1969 he battled the AEC over the Rulison blast. Now he's working against what he says is an industry-controlled OGCC.

"At least with the Rulison project, we had our say," Cooley says, noting that the battle went to the Supreme Court. "That case couldn't approach the level of contempt and arrogance shown on the issue of well-spacing by the OGCC."

Charles Worley remembers taking time away from his Cedaredge plumbing business in 1969 to protest the Rulison explosion. "We would go down to the Methodist church to use the mimeograph to make copies of our fliers," he says. Those limp leaflets, printed with fading purple ink, contained scientific information about potential negative consequences of the bomb not covered in the local press. There was even some poetry. "We waged quite a propaganda campaign to try to get people to stop and think," Worley says.

In 1980, Worley helped found the Western Colorado Congress, a group that now uses electronic mail, faxes and other high-tech means to fight the expansion of gas drilling. "They're way past that old mimeograph machine," says Worley. Now eighty, Worley says he sees similarities between his battle against the bomb and the current fight against drilling rigs. "It's the same fight," says Worley. "There are just different weapons."

Today Worley's memories of the Rulison blast remain crystal clear. "It shook us all up pretty good," he says. "It shook the cars around us. It sent these huge rocks cascading down the face of the cliffs." Like many other observers, he mentions the wave that came toward him on the ground.

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