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By DAN JOLING
ANCHORAGE — The Bureau of Land Management will focus on 16 high priority sites as part of its strategy for cleaning up old exploratory wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Another 34 wells in the 35,635-square mile reserve on Alaska’s North Slope will be remediated as money is made available, the agency said in releasing its plan for NPR-A legacy wells.
"While this final plan lays out an aggressive strategy to address 16 of our highest priority wells, we continue to work with our partners to determine the next steps on the remaining wells requiring remediation," BLM Alaska director Bud Cribley said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said the plan to address "neglected and sometimes dangerous" wells with $5 million per year for five years is overdue but a step forward.
"This takes care of the worst offenders, but would leave Alaskans dealing with others for years to come," he said in an email response.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was pleased that money has been found to address an "environmental crime."
"The abandoned wells have been ignored for far too long by federal land managers — the excuse always being that they lacked the money to adequately address the issue," she said by email. "Well, now we have a pot of money to work from; It won’t cover the cost of cleaning up all the wells, but it’s a start."
The reserve is a roadless area just smaller than Indiana. President Warren Harding created the reserve in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the Navy.
The Navy or the U.S. Geological Survey directed the drilling of 136 exploratory oil wells, core tests, or temperature monitoring holes starting in the 1940s.
The failure of the federal government to remediate wells has been a sore point for Alaska politicians who see high environmental standards enforced for private companies. The Alaska Legislature this year approved legislation calling the old holes "travesty wells."
Since 2002, the federal government has spent nearly $86 million plugging 18 wells and cleaning surfaces at priority sites, according to the agency.
The BLM’s 666-page strategy document includes assessments of the surface and subsurface conditions of each well.
The agency concluded that 68 wells require no additional action because they have been remediated or they pose no threat. Another 18 are being used by the USGS.
Surface cleanup at three sites on the Simpson Peninsula, where the Navy left behind solid waste, could begin next year, according to BLM.