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Garfield County's well-drilling tales warn of battle ahead


While permits to drill wells in Colorado have surged in recent years, the state's history with oil and gas has long been explosive. In 1969, federal scientists buried and then detonated a nuclear bomb near the western Colorado town of Rulison in Garfield County, believing it might release natural gas trapped below.

Project Rulison, as it was called, was part of a larger federal project to find industrial uses for nuclear explosives.

The Colorado test worked, in that natural gas was released. The problem: It had to be carefully incinerated to control radioactive waste that also escaped.

Patrick Barker, a community organizer with Western Colorado Congress, jokingly calls the test the "first fracking," referring to hydrofracturing technology that now allows energy companies to collect oil and gas from tight rock formations by shattering them with high-pressure liquids. Barker works with Garfield County residents facing a variety of inconveniences, hazards and health problems they say are connected to oil and gas development.

Notably, Garfield County is home to the Roan Plateau, site of a fierce fight to keep companies from drilling in a wild, undeveloped place. But before the Roan struggle attracted widespread attention, the county already had enormous drilling activity. In three years, the county's wells have multiplied about four times to more than 4,000. Permits to drill thousands more wells have been issued, Barker says, but energy companies simply don't have the equipment to drill them fast enough.

Even with the flurry of drilling, residents expected energy companies to stay away from the Rulison blast site and a 3-mile buffer federal officials placed around it.

That has not happened, Barker says. Dozens of wells have gone in near the blast site; dozens more are in the works.

The risk that radioactive waste could escape from one of those wells is not merely academic, Barker points out. Several years ago, an oil and gas company messed up as it applied concrete to seal its well bore. The well ruptured when it was hydrofractured; benzene and other pollutants seeped into the water table and then showed up in West Divide Creek.

Barker says he's hopeful the state's oil and gas commission will become more cautious about granting permits. Gov. Bill Ritter recently succeeded in having the board expanded from 7 to 9 members, adding environmentalists and public health experts to a board long dominated by industry insiders.

The commission was gathering this week in Grand Junction for an informational meeting on risks connected with drilling near the Rulison site.

The spread of wells in Garfield County has taught many lessons, Barker says. First, it is nearly impossible to stop energy companies from drilling, particularly where they own rather than lease mineral rights.

Peggy Utesch once lived near the Garfield County town of Silt. For about two years beginning in 2003, more than 25 wells were drilled near her home, the closest only about 1,000 feet away. She developed respiratory problems and a skin rash, blaming ozone and volatile organic compounds released from the wells.

She fought the energy companies for years. Eventually she moved up the Colorado River valley to New Castle.

"There isn't any stopping them," Utesch says.

"It seems like, whoever is making the decisions, they are not taking into account the other uses of the land," she says. "There are some places that are just not appropriate for drilling."

Utesch says it would be "precedent-setting" if San Luis Valley residents manage to stop drilling on the Baca.

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