DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Supreme Court is considering whether residents have a right to demand a hearing on a proposal to drill for natural gas near a nuclear blast site in western Colorado.

The court heard arguments Wednesday from lawyers for the state and a Garfield County citizens’ group over who’s entitled to a public airing of the reasons for and against drilling. At issue is the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission’s decision to grant a permit to Encana Oil & Gas to drill within three miles of an area where the government detonated a nuclear device in 1969 to stimulate natural gas production.

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The state said a 2003 rule only entitles drillers, local governments and surface property owners to such hearings. But the Grand Valley Citizens’ Alliance argued that conflicts with the state’s overall oil and gas regulations, which were broadened in 2007 to require more attention to drilling’s impacts on public health and the environment.

The lawyer for the citizens’ alliance, Martha Tierney, said there has been some hesitance to opening up the process since the regulations were overhauled.

“There is some resistance to the rabble, if you will, getting in the way,” she said in response to a question from Justice Gregory J. Hobbs Jr.

Daniel Domenico of the state attorney general’s office, representing the oil and gas commission, said the regulations also require the commission to issue permits in a timely manner and allowing anyone to request a hearing could bog down the process. He said allowing counties to request a hearing ensures that broad-based concerns are considered, as opposed to complaints from a narrow interest group that may want to stop drilling.

Garfield County didn’t request a hearing in this case but it is backing the citizens’ group lawsuit.

Last year, the state appeals court said residents could sue to demand a hearing on Encana’s permit — regardless of the ultimate outcome of their arguments against drilling.

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The state appealed that ruling to the high court. It’s not clear how soon it will rule.

Project Rulison was one of three locations in Colorado and New Mexico where the federal government set off nuclear blasts during the Cold War to trigger natural gas production. All were part of a program that promoted using nuclear explosions for peacetime purposes.

The U.S. Energy Department prohibits drilling below 6,000 feet in a 40-acre radius that surrounds the Rulison site, and Colorado regulators have kept wells at least a half-mile away.

In 2009, the department suggested that the state could allow energy companies to drill closer to the area if done in a “conservative, staged” approach. It said radiation from the blast is largely incorporated within molten rock that formed a sort of glass chamber.

The oil and gas commission maintains that years of sampling and monitoring by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show there’s been no radiation above what Coloradans are already exposed to in nature.

– By Colleen Slevin, AP Writer

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