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Originally published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 11:41 AM

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Colo. regulators review gas drilling at nuke site

Floyd McDaniel was a young man when the federal government tested its "Atoms for Peace" program by detonating a 43-kiloton atomic bomb on the side of a Colorado mountain to produce natural gas.

Associated Press Writer

RULISON, Colo. —

Floyd McDaniel was a young man when the federal government tested its "Atoms for Peace" program by detonating a 43-kiloton atomic bomb on the side of a Colorado mountain to produce natural gas.

He and his neighbors were forced from their homes 40 years ago and herded down by the river to an observation post, where they listened to the countdown as it reverberated through the canyons.

When the countdown reached zero, he says, "It was the oddest thing. You could see the ground rolling," cracking chimneys and wells, and sending rocks sliding down mountainsides miles away.

On Wednesday, state and local officials held a sometimes testy informational hearing with the U.S. Department of Energy in Glenwood Springs. They have significant concerns about a proposal to drill for natural gas at the site, which has been sealed off since the test on Sept. 10, 1969.

State Health Department Director Jim Martin questioned recommendations from the U.S. Department of Energy for a "path forward" that suggests the state could allow energy companies can drill closer to the area if done in a "conservative, staged" approach.

"What you're saying is we're going to drill until we hit radioactive gas, and then we're going to stop," Martin told the DOE.

Jack Craig, current manager of the Rulison site for the DOE, said mathematical modeling and other investigations show that chances of contamination being released are slim, but it's not impossible. He said the risk is greater to oil and gas workers than to the general public.

Chris Canfield, environmental protection specialist for the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the state has held mock drills for oil and gas workers since last year on how to deal with radioactive contamination, and plans are in place for emergency response in the event radioactive gas is released by drilling.

Ruth and Cary Weldon, who own the surface rights to the land at "ground zero," told the commission in a written statement that drilling around the site should be forbidden unless the state and federal government can prove it won't hurt the public and the environment.

They said by any measure, "the test was a complete disaster."

"Not only was there no marketable gas produced, the agency had to flare off nearly 455 cubic feet of radioactive gas and then left our community, landowners and mineral owners with a legacy of an underground cavity full of radiation of unknown size and reach."

The site itself, on the side of a mountain overlooking the Battlement Mesa retirement community, is no longer considered contaminated, according to government regulatory agencies.

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Ruth Weldon said they bought the property in 1976 after being assured by the federal government it was safe. She said she asked the Central Intelligence Agency for information on the blast and was told it was classified.

She now suspects ulterior motives because the DOE refused to tell state regulators what isotopes were found, saying it could disclose classified information about nuclear bomb designs.

"I think they were trying to violate the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," she said.

A permanent metal marker put up by the federal government marks the spot, but visitors are not allowed inside a fence because it's on Weldon's property. A yellow sign put up by environmentalists also marks the site, warning: "Rulison Nuclear Blast Site. Caution. Radioactive Contamination Zone. Underground Site Not Closed. DOE Study Pending."

Concerns about possible releases of radioactive contamination from the underground explosion have increased as more wells have been drilled closer to the spot, about 190 miles west of Denver. The explosion 8,426 feet underground was part of the Plowshare Project, which sought peaceful uses for nuclear devices.

A well produced gas, but it was considered too radioactive to be sold commercially. The agency began deactivating and cleaning the area in the 1970s.

The DOE says most of the radioactivity from the explosion was trapped in a glass dome that formed when melted and vaporized rock collected in a puddle with a diameter of about 160 feet deep below the surface and cooled.

The DOE prohibits drilling below 6,000 feet within 40 acres of the area, and state regulators require hearings on drilling permit applications within a half-mile, but there are no wells that close.

Noble Energy Inc., which has leases in the area, says it won't apply for permits in the half-mile zone at least through next year.

McDaniel, now 78, says there should be no drilling at the site until the state and federal government can perform tests that will show if the natural gas and groundwater are still contaminated.

"They told us it was Atoms for Peace, but we didn't know then what we know now," he said.

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