Skip to content

A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Part One.

August 13, 2019

News article “the day after” the Rulison nuclear blast

A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Part One.

_______________

The fiftieth anniversary of Project Rulison, an underground nuclear blast to produce commercially grade natural gas – a kind of nuclear fracking – will take place on September 10, 2019. Some of us involved in protesting the blast will return to Rulison as a part of an effort to make a documentary film on the event. What was Project Rulison and what broader program was it a part of? It was an important moment in the state and nation’s history but so few know anything about it. If I do, it is because in large measure due to the fact that I was there. What follows – beyond these personal remarks in this introductory entry – are a series of articles on flawed attempt to use nuclear bombs for peaceful purposes, of which Project Rulison was an integral episode.

_______________

 

According to Margaret Puls, Project Rulison was a federal government program to detonate an underground nuclear blast in the mountains west of Denver, just south of the town of Rulison on Colorado’s western slope, ie, 100 miles or so west of the continental divide. The purpose of the blast was to create a cavity into which natural gas would flow. The federal government would then attempt to sell the natural gas to urban areas throughout the country, but specifically on the West Coast. There’s an idea that is as dumb today as it was then.

A few personal remarks.

In early March of 1969, I descended from what was an interminable Greyhound bus ride from Chicago, across Illinois, Iowa, the never-ending Nebraska to Wyoming, transferring in Cheyenne and arriving in Denver on a sunny late winter morning. Taken back by how different downtown Denver appeared to me, someone who had grown up in NYC, what burst forth from my mouth involuntarily after the first look around was “Hmmm – this isn’t Brooklyn.”

What I took for as two passing cowboy businessmen dressed in cowboy boots and western suits heard me. As they walked by, one of them turned to me and commented “You’re right about that son.” So it began, my half century of life in Colorado. Never dreamed I’d spend most of my adult life here, but I did. Nor did my NYC family. This is the fiftieth anniversary of my time in Colorado. Half a century. A full two-thirds of my life…and I have no plans to go elsewhere.

Melinda Dell Fitting in Denver in 1974, five years after the Rulison blast at which she was present

Shortly thereafter, in early days of September of that same fateful year, 1969, recently enrolled in a doctoral program in Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I was approached by a woman giving out leaflets about “Project Rulison.” She had to explain to me several times what the project was about because the first time she explained it, it just sounded so reckless, so insane.

According to Margaret Puls, Project Rulison was a federal government program to detonate an underground nuclear blast in the mountains west of Denver, just south of the town of Rulison on Colorado’s western slope, ie, 100 miles or so west of the continental divide. The purpose of the blast was to create a cavity into which natural gas would flow. The federal government would then attempt to sell the natural gas to urban areas throughout the country, but specifically on the West Coast. There’s an idea that is as dumb today as it was then.

Margaret Puls originally came from Salida, Colorado, a (then) small town not far from the headwaters of the Arkansas River in the Colorado mountains. She, along with Chester McQueary who at the time was an organizer for the American Friends Service Committee in Colorado, were organizing a protest against the blast. The protest was to go sit within a mile of the blast site in hopes that if a large enough group of protesters were there sitting on the site, that the blast would be called off.

In September, 1969, the Vietnam War was at its height and a whole generation of young folk, of which I was one, trying to make sense of how the liberal vision of the country’s future could square with the killing of millions of Vietnamese. (1) That was awful enough but now the same government was detonating nuclear weapons underground in order to commercially sell natural gas to Los Angeles? Wouldn’t the resulting natural gas filling the cavity caused by the gas contain radioactive contaminants? Would such underground blasts caused earthquakes?

Even for someone not versed in science to say nothing of nature in general, Project Rulison sounded like the dumbest, most destructive government program I had ever heard of, which by the way, it was… an outright attack on nature and a commercial dead end, which it was. And so two days into my doctoral program (which I never finished) I left the classroom in Boulder and in a car full of people I had never met before (other than my then, new-found friend Melinda Fitting) and hours later found myself a guerrilla anti-nuclear activist, on a forested hill within a mile of ground zero at Rulison. The blast was delayed once and the protesters asked to leave. Many refused. On September 10, 1969 with a group of fifty or more protesters a little more than a mile from the blast sight, an underground nuclear blast was detonated. Project Rulison had just been implemented.

I can’t give you a specific number of people who took up the challenge, made the journey to Rulison and camped out approximately a mile from the Rulison blast site, but there were a lot of us. Fifty? Seventy-five maybe more. I came and went from the protest site twice trying to balance protesting with graduate school classes, something I didn’t do very well. Want to emphasize the degree to which I was a bit player in the events that transpired, just one of the protesters. I had no role in the organizing of it, at the time knew nothing about Project Plowshares of which it was a part and as I had some kind of Physical Anthropology exam, actually left the mountains a few days before the blast and was not there when the bomb was detonated, although my life-long friend and then co-house mate, Melinda Fitting was there when the bomb went off.

Even given my admittedly limited participation, Project Rulison marked a turning point for me both politically and personally. Not that it matters in the broader scheme of things, but besides killing all those Vietnamese for nothing (and it was that), Project Rulison helped me understand a ruthless and quite frankly insane quality of the American government and my politics moved decisively left, where it has remained for the past fifty years, and will remain until my death.

On a more personal level, it was at Rulison, protesting the impending nuclear blast that I met two other lifelong dear friends, one Nancy Ellen Fey and one Jo Ellen Patton. Although she grew up mostly in Littleton, Jo Ellen’s family roots were in Kansas. Although she grew up mostly in the Boulder area – her father being a physicist – Nancy Ellen’s family roots were in small town Eastern Nebraska. And I’m Brooklyn born, Jamaica, Queens raised. Without Nancy and Jo, I doubt I would have a go of it here… but they were here, friends and in their own ways my spiritual guides to the Midwest.

There is much more to the story of my first year in Colorado – but the series that follows is not so much

Nancy Fey and Jo Patton not long after they, Melindia Dell Fitting and I sat in at Rulison

about Melinda Dell Fitting, Nancy Fey, Jo Patton or Rob Prince – in fact, other than these introductory comments, the series isn’t about us but about Project Plowshares, the over-arching and profoundly ill-conceived plan to justify and rationalize what can never be justified nor rationalized, the so-called “peaceful use of nuclear weapons.”There is no such thing. Rulison was just one of a number of nuclear bombs set off as a part of Project Plowshares.

But fifty years ago on September 10, 1969 just south of the small town of Rulison, Colorado, not far west of Rifle for those of you familiar with the state, the federal government detonated a nuclear bomb underground. In a few weeks, a few of us who participated in protesting that experiment in death and destruction are going back to Rulison to mark the event and to try, fifty years on, to put it and the nuclear arms race into perspective.

Stay tuned.

Previous writings on Rulison…

The Dark Domain: Resurrecting Rulison This is the first of a two part series written in 2007. There is a link to the second part there.

Project Rulison – This is a “best case scenario” YouTube of Project Rulison done by the U.S. Department of Energy. There is good technical information within in terms of how the architects and engineers of the blast set it up and how they hoped – against hope – that the results would turn out.

______________

1. Exact figure unknown, but besides the 56,000 American soldiers who died there, somewhere between 3 to 4 million Vietnamese were killed, the latter figure hardly mentioned these days while the former figure has been memorialized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: