From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 103, Number 13 - November 30, 2006
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Members of one of the most successful grassroots committees set up a straw poll in November of 1972. Local citizens cast their votes and spoke out as a community. Mary Skinner cast her vote.
The Big Bang that didn’t happen
A historical look at Project Wagon Wheel, and the citizens that made history
by Nikki Mann

History is filled with dates and numbers, some memorable, some not so memorable. A proposal came out in January 1968, that could have made a big bang in history, and the small ranching town of Pinedale could have gone down in infamy. It was a small, local, grassroots committee that stopped what could have been the biggest mistake in Sublette County’s history.

In an area 19 miles south-southeast of Pinedale, 18 miles east-northeast of Big Piney and Marbleton, and 10 miles south of Boulder and 9,220 feet underground an explosion of epic proportions was proposed. Five nuclear bombs were going to be dropped down a drill hole and sequentially exploded to free up natural gas trapped in layers of sandstone. This proposal was called Project Wagon Wheel.

“We took it on out of self defense. They were going to vent radioactive gasses eight miles from where I live, “ said Mary Anne Steele. Mary Anne was one of the prominent members of the local grass roots committee that formed in response to the Wagon Wheel Project.

According to a fact sheet published by El Paso Natural Gas Company, who owned the natural gas shares locked in the sandstone, the nuclear detonation would create a “chimney-a roughly cylindrical chamber filled with broken rock.” The scope of the nuclear detonation was on a previously unimagined scale. The five bombs would create a blast 25 times greater than the explosion that destroyed Hiroshima.

There was an existing treaty at the time of the Wagon Wheel Proposal that prohibited the detonation of nuclear bombs larger than 150 kilotons. While the Wagon Wheel proposal was a total of 500 kilotons, the bombs could be set off as five separate 100 kiloton explosions and still be in treaty compliance. The initial plan was for the Wagon Wheel explosions to take place in 1973. After that “twenty-five wells could be stimulated in the manner proposed by Wagon Wheel” near the site of the original blast. Like Wagon Wheel, each well would require the detonation of four or five nuclear devices.

Many citizens of Sublette County, surrounding counties, and even citizens of other states had concerns about the detonation of five large nuclear bombs. Among the concerns were: the ground motion from the blast, the radioactivity of the natural gas, contamination to the ground water, radioactive gas released to the atmosphere, and the transportation of large nuclear devices.

The shake from a 500 kiloton explosion was no small concern. El Paso Gas Company predicted the blast could cause ground tremors that might reach 5 on the Richter scale. The Project Director for El Paso Gas Company later admitted that the tremors might have reached as high as 5.8. To put this tremor in context, the 1989 earthquake that collapsed the top layer of the San Francisco Bay Bridge measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. The quake caused between five and ten billion dollars in damage and directly killed 67 people.

During the blasting, El Paso was urging people to leave their homes and avoid driving as a safety precaution. They predicted structural damage to highway bridges, some buildings, and roadside rock falls.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement failed to address any damage to the Boulder Lake Irrigation District, which had many expensive structures such as concrete siphons and spillways. Also ignored were two major structures, the Boulder Lake dam and the Ward Ball Reservoir dam.

A ground-motion study by Dames and Moore, later released after intense public pressure, recommended draining both Boulder and Ward Ball Reservoir. El Paso horrified some local residents with their proposal to burn off three billion cubic feet of radioactive gas during production testing. This would put radioactive tritium, krypton-85 and argon-37 into the local atmosphere. Fall out from these radioactive atmospheric isotopes combined with the possibility of seepage around the wellhead could contaminate local beef cattle and dairy cows when the animals ingested polluted grass. El Paso noted the problem could be avoided by shipping in uncontaminated hay and supplying outside milk. However, the proposal did not mention who would eventually pay for this expense.

An additional concern was the potential for radioactive contaminating of wildlife herds and fish populations, which were very important to locals and for out-of-state hunters and hunting revenues.

Another potential problem was radioactive contamination of both deep aquifers and local wells. An employee of Hammons Drilling Company in Pinedale, which had logs on over 200 local wells, outlined how the blast might cause surface waters and second water to mix and contaminate all the wells in the area. There were a lot of unanswered questions on possible deep aquifer contamination and how that might effect people and when.

There was also the scary possibility of a nuclear accident when the nuclear bombs where being transported to the area during field development. This wasn’t as considerable a concern with only the one Wagon Wheel well, but with the additional 25 proposed wells, the concern was considerable.

In March of 1972, a local group of concerned citizens started meeting informally to study the effects of the Wagon Wheel project on the community. This informal group would grow and evolve to become one of the most successful grassroots organizations. They were, and still are, the Wagon Wheel Information Committee (WWIC).

The WWIC found the proposals put forth by El Paso disturbing. When the draft EIS came out, WWIC gathered steam and began pointing out gaping holes and huge potential problems in El Paso’s Wagon Wheel plan.

At a public meeting in Big Piney sponsored by the Green River Cattlemen’s Association and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Philip Randolph from El Paso essentially said Project Wagon Wheel would be abandoned if an overwhelming number of local residents opposed the project. The reporters covering the meeting, as well as the 1100 people in the audience took Randolph’s words to heart.

On November 7th 1972, the WWIC set up straw polling stations outside regular voting stations where residents were casting their ballots in the presidential election. Official voter registration lists were used for the straw poll, and four local ministers sealed the ballot boxes before they were taken to the polling locations. At the end of the voting, the boxes were carried by the Pinedale Police Chief back the ministers who counted the votes. When absentee ballots were added the results were: 970 opposed, 279 favored, and 105 were undecided about nuclear stimulation of natural gas in Sublette County, Wyoming. Seventy-eight percent of the citizens that voted in the general election took the extra time to vote in the straw pole.

When it became clear that the WWIC was going to need to travel to Washington D.C. to make their voices heard, they conducted an extensive fund raising activity. They sponsored the “Wagon Wheel Blast”, a benefit dance held simultaneously in Pinedale’s three bars. They asked for a donation of one dollar per person. The community responded. Many people attended the dance including some ladies who had never before been seen in a bar!

With the money collected from fundraisers, ten ordinary people who were (Boulder rancher and Boulder irrigation District Commissioner), Sally Mackey (wife of Pinedale’s County Attorney), Doris Burzlander (who ran a Pinedale motel), Ken Perry (geology professor at University of Wyoming with a ranch in Boulder), Bernie Gosar (Pinedale housewife and mother of ten), Mary Ann Steele (wife of a Boulder rancher), Daphne Platts, Phyllis Birr (writer for the Pinedale Roundup), John Perry Barlow (Cora rancher), and A.B. Cooper (Pinedale businessman representing the Town Council), all flew to Washington D.C. to represent the concerned citizens of Sublette County before the Atomic Energy Commission and other government agencies and groups. Their voices were joined by several of Wyoming’s political representatives including Congressman Teno Roncalio, Senator Cliff Hansen, and Senator Gale McGee.

They saved money by flying six of the WWIC members in a private plane owned by one of the delegates. The called the flight a “TWA” or “Teeny-Weeny Airline” flight, and were stranded in Cincinnati, Ohio for a time when the plane broke down.

Before their trip to D.C., the WWIC worked feverishly to put together one hundred copies of a 68-page booklet titled “Statement of Opposition to Project Wagon Wheel”. The WWIC members set up assembly lines in Sally Mackey’s dining room to assemble the booklets and attach covers. Later the group was asked by Ear Butz, then Secretary of Agriculture and natural resource coordinator under Nixon, how much federal money had gone into the preparation of the WWIC “Statement of Opposition to Project Wagon Wheel”.

You can imagine the astonishment of the WWIC members who had volunteered their time to write, type, and hectically assemble all of the packets before they left. Butz was quickly informed of his error.

The WWIC did not end up successfully stopping Project Wagon Wheel, but they did something equally as powerful. They raised serious concerns and delayed the project long enough to see the results of similar, but smaller scale, projects. In Rio Blanco, CO, the detonation of three 30 kiloton nuclear devices did not produce a “rubble chimney” from which the gas could be extracted and was by-and-large considered a failure.

In March of 1974, El Paso Natural Gas began to give up its poorly thought out idea of nuclear blasting, and focused on hydraulic fracturing experiments in Sublette County. The new method of pumping high-pressure fluid down a well created thin fissures in the rock through which the gas could flow.

Because Project Wagon Wheel was never cancelled (it just wasn’t funded) the Wagon Wheel Information Committee never official disbanded. Last year the group reconvened after a long break and used $3,000 of treasury money to help fund Perry Walker’s air quality research.

However, the WWIC’s impact may have been larger than anyone originally imagined. As Mary Anne Steele pointed out, “If we had failed, there wouldn’t be any Jonah field and the gas would have been radioactive.”

SOURCES: Mary Anne Steele’s 28-page document on the history of the Wagon Wheel Project and Ann Chamber Noble’s book “Pinedale, Wyoming: A Centennial History 1904-2004”. Special thanks to Sally Mackey for her “bipederal” express delivery of Mary Anne’s document.

Photo credits:  Courtesy Sally Mackey

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