The US Bureau of Land Management’s Anchorage, Alas., office released a draft plan listing near-term priorities and actions to plug and clean up legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, but the draft quickly drew fire from the state’s senior US senator.
Lisa Murkowski (R), the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s ranking minority, said BLM’s action was a step in the right direction. “But I’m concerned that the agency appears to have unilaterally decided that more than half of the wells don’t require remediation,” she said, adding, “That’s not the federal government’s decision to make—that’s up to the State of Alaska.”
BLM Alaska State Director Bud Cribley, meanwhile, said, “This plan lays out an aggressive strategy to address some of the highest priority wells. Full remediation of the wells that BLM has inherited will require tremendous resources over the coming years, but [it] is committed to working with the state and villages to get the job done.”
Of 136 wells the US Navy and US Geological Survey drilled within NPR-A between 1944 and 1982, BLM said more than half require no further action because they have been remediated or pose no threat to the public or environment.
Another 18 wells are in use by USGS as part of climate change monitoring in the Arctic, it said. The remaining 50 wells will, according to assessments conducted by BLM, require various levels of additional cleanup work, the US Department of the Interior agency indicated.
Priority wells identified
BLM said the strategic plan identifies 16 priority wells for cleanup, including some that pose high risks to the surface. Three well sites on the Simpson Peninsula where solid waste was left behind by the Navy, including half barrels and other drums submerged in oil seeps, are priority cleanup sites, for example, BLM said.
The federal government has spent nearly $86 million plugging 18 legacy wells and cleaning the surface at priority sites since 2002, it noted. The Navy and USGS originally drilled the wells to gather geologic data or to identify petroleum reserves. BLM inherited the responsibility to assess, and if necessary, plug and clean up wells and surface sites in 1982, it said.
Murkowski said only 16 of the 136 wells have been properly plugged, and 7 of those were taken care of by the North Slope Borough, not by BLM, which is responsible for them.
The remaining 120 wells are in various conditions of noncompliance with state law, she said. The drill sites—many of which are contaminated by wood, metal, plastic, glass, and concrete debris—are also littered with rusting barrels once filled with contaminants, the senator said.
“Let me be clear: These wells were drilled by the federal government, so the cleanup is solely the responsibility of the federal government,” she said. “I expect the federal government to live up to the same high environmental standards that it holds private oil companies to—Alaskans won’t tolerate a double standard.”
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