From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 48 - February 27, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Revisiting the Wagon Wheel Project

by Cat Urbigkit

It was 30 short years ago when the Atomic Energy Commission proposed detonating five 100-kiloton nuclear devices down a drill hole here in Sublette County and last Sunday, three young women hosted a gathering to ensure we wouldn't forget this important piece of history.

Meredith Noble, Erica David and Valerie Stevens, all seventh-graders in Pinedale Middle School, hosted the get-together for the Wagon Wheel Information Committee in the historic Chambers House in Pinedale. It's part of the BOCES-funded History Day observance in Pinedale, in which all sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students participate. With this year's topic being "Rights and Responsibilities," the Wagon Wheel Project provided a good case study of the role of citizens in halting a federal action.

Local historian Ann Noble, Meredith's mother, is a History Day coach and drove the energetic trio to Laramie last week for a full day of research in the special collections of the American Heritage Center. The young women will present their projects at a district competition on March 29 and at 6:30 p.m., March 31, an open house will be held at the Pinedale Middle School for the public to view all the History Day projects.

Of course, not all the Wagon Wheel Information Committee members were able to attend Sunday, but the gathering did draw seven former committee members: Mark Mrak, Doris Burzlander, Jane Johnston, Sally Mackey, Grace Anderson, Pat Jackson and Daphne Platts.

The Wagon Wheel Project was proposed in the early 1970s as part of the Nixon Administration's "plowshare," in which weapons of destruction would be fashioned into "tools of peace." The AEC proposed to use nuclear stimulation in natural gas fields to ease the energy crisis. Nuclear explosions would be used to release natural gas trapped in tight formations underground. Four projects were proposed, and only the Wagon Wheel Project was stopped.

Project Gasbuggy near Farmington, N.M., involved detonating a 29-kiloton nuclear device at a depth of 4,227 feet below the surface. It took place in December 1967. Project Rulison involved detonating a 40-kiloton nuclear devise in September 1969, near Rifle, Colo. Project Rio Blanco, in western Colorado's Rio Blanco County, involved simultaneously detonating three 30-kiloton devices stacked vertically in the drill hole in May 1973.

But Project Wagon Wheel was the most ambitious undertaking of all. The AEC proposed that El Paso Natural Gas Company's Wagon Wheel Well No. 1 would use five 100-kiloton nuclear devices down hole, at depths ranging between 9,220 to 11,570 feet. The devices would be detonated sequentially from bottom to top, five minutes apart. Each device was reportedly five times more powerful than those used in World War II.

The Wagon Well is located just south of Highway 351 between the Jonah II and the Pinedale Anticline natural gas fields.

El Paso Natural Gas Company would wait about six months for radiation to decrease before completing the well, and AEC planned that full-field production could involve 40 to 50 such detonations a year. El Paso and AEC became partners in advocating the project, which was scheduled for detonation in 1973, then delayed until 1974, and eventually delayed indefinitely when then-President Richard Nixon's budget no longer included funding for the plowshare-testing program.

Several members of the Wagon Wheel Information Committee attended the Sunday session and said they didn't believe there really was an energy crisis that prompted the interest in the plowshare program.

Burzlander said the problem wasn't an energy crisis, but the fact that the gas was trapped in the tight formations that the companies couldn't get the gas out of. Since Sublette County was so sparsely populated, "They decided to use us for the experiment," Burzlander said. While the nuclear stimulation technology was also subject to testing in the Colorado and New Mexico experiments, Burzlander said, "Ours was to be the massive one."

Local citizens from all walks of life banded together to form a Wagon Wheel Information Committee, initially to gather information about the proposal, and eventually morphing into powerful opposition that took on Washington, D.C., and won.

Mackey described the proposed detonation as the equivalent of a 7.5 earthquake, able to take down chimneys, wells and bridges. The federal study, deemed inadequate by most residents, acknowledged the earth would move four feet at the well site, picking the New Fork River Bridge, five miles away, up into the air several inches, causing substantial damage.

Burzlander said another anticipated impact was that ranchers would have to bring in five months of feed since the natural forage might be radioactive for that length of time.

Mrak said he was concerned about maintaining the integrity of the groundwater, with the commingling of different zones expected by the blast. The ground movement was expected to be at least an eighth-of-an inch for a radius of 10 miles. Mrak said compensation for damages over a certain amount would have taken an act of Congress.

Jackson said local residents were galled by the attitude that "well, nobody lives up there, so we can do it."

Mrak said having locals treated as if "the bumpkins here didn't know what was good for them" helped to galvanize opposition.

Burzlander said the value of each life in Sublette County was valued at $250,000.

The committee members described how project proponents arrived in the county to talk to the residents, dressing in western attire and trying to make it seem to be a western project.

Mackey asked, "Can you think of anything more western than the Wagon Wheel Project (name)?"

When asked if they would have moved from the area if the authorization for the nuclear blast had been granted, the committee members responded that they wouldn't have, or couldn't have.

"I don't think I could have," Mrak said.

"We didn't intend to move," Burzlander said. "That's why we got up and fought."

Mackey said copies of the environmental impact statement, one of the first ever written, were distributed for everyone to review, with a wealth of local expertise evident.

The committee held public meetings and fundraisers, and even held a straw poll during the 1972 election, using sheriff's deputies to collect the ballots and two ministers to count them. Of the 1,670 voters in the election, 1,230 participated in the Wagon Wheel poll, with 873 opposed, 262 favoring, and 95 with no expressed opinion.

"It was a matter of attacking from all sides," Mackey said.

The committee scheduled a trip to Washington, D.C. for February 1973, but needed to raise the money to get there. A fundraising party was held that became known as the "Wagon Wheel Blast."

Daphne Platts said, "It was the best party this town has ever had, and everybody came." All three downtown bars in Pinedale participated and had live music. The jazz trio of Dr. Tom Johnston, Hammer Reed and John Mackey played as well.

Floyd Bousman was an eloquent spokesperson for the group in Washington and even appeared on NBC's Today Show to press their case.

"We saw everybody that would see us and a few who didn't want to," Burzlander said. She told a story of presenting the 60-page document in opposition to the project (which Jane Johnston had typed, without the assistance of the modern computer) to the Secretary of Agriculture. Burzlander said the man was very sarcastic and wanted to know how much government money had been spent in creating the report.

"I really thought Floyd was going to climb over the table and poke him in the nose," Burzlander said.

The committee's trip to D.C. made an impact, as did the opposition voiced by Wyoming Senator Teno Roncalio. While there was no obvious point at which the project was officially killed, funding for the project eventually disappeared.

"It was never actually cancelled," Mackey said. "It just kind of dwindled."

Burzlander noted how far the technology has come since the proposed nuclear stimulation of the past: "Now they're punching holes like using a hypodermic needle."

Mrak noted, "They were correct in their assessment that the gas was there," but they had to wait for a "better, safer technology to come to life."

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