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Gas production nears nuclear blast site

July 23, 2009
TOPICS: Natural gas
The new drilling and a U.S. Energy Department draft report that would allow more drilling near the detonation site has captured the attention of local residents and several environmental groups, who fear the intensive use of hydraulic fracturing could result in the migration of radioactive materials off-site. From the New York Times:
The goal of the Rulison detonation was to unlock natural gas deposits deep underground. The bomb succeeded in doing just that, but there was a catch: The gas released from underground was too radioactive to sell, prompting the Energy Department to ban drilling below 6,000 feet on the 40-acre site. The Colorado State Oil and Gas Conservation Commission enacted wider restrictions, requiring a hearing when an application is received to drill within a three-mile radius of ground zero. Forty years after the blast, the natural gas industry has proliferated in Colorado’s gas rich Piceance Basin, and dozens of gas wells are located within three miles of the site. Last month, amid community concerns and a surge in drilling permit requests in the area, the Energy Department released a draft report outlining a “staged” approach to drilling that “allows gas reserves near the Rulison site to be recovered in a manner that minimizes the likelihood of encountering contamination.” “The D.O.E. is confident that any contaminants remain within our institutional control,” said Jack Craig, the D.O.E. manager of the Rulison site. Mr. Craig said this assertion was not based on evidence from actual drilling, but on historical data, intensive modeling and knowledge of the underlying rock layers. “So we have made this proposal that you can drill,” said Mr. Craig — though he said the idea was to have companies come in slowly. “That way,” he said, “on the slim chance that you do happen to detect contaminants, you could take whatever action you need to take.” (Access to the area immediately above the blast site will remain off limits “forever,” Mr. Craig said.) The Colorado commission has also announced a “sampling and analysis plan” that would “specifically screen for the potential migration of radionuclides from the test cavity to producing gas wells within a three-mile radius of the site.” Local residents and several environmental groups fear that the intensive use of hydraulic fracturing – which involves injecting gas and fluids at high pressure underground to break up rock surrounding gas deposits – could result in the migration of radioactive materials off-site. One isotope of particular concern is tritium, a radioactive variant of hydrogen, which, according to Mr. Craig, is the most mobile of the remaining underground contaminants.
 
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