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Contracting issues delay cleanup work at reserve

Posted: September 11, 2013 - 12:01am

JUNEAU — Contracting issues have delayed the start of planned cleanup work around abandoned well sites in the Alaska Arctic, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said Tuesday.

In May, BLM-Alaska released a draft plan identifying 50 abandoned wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that it believes require cleanup by the agency. The plan prioritized the remediation of the first 16 of those sites in the reserve. One of those sites — described as lying near a well-traveled winter road, with a building well known for providing shelter to travelers in poor weather — has a gas leak that the agency said could pose a threat to public health and safety.

The plan called for surface work at several sites southeast of Barrow to begin as early as this year, with cleanup of drums submerged in oil seeps and other debris. But Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for BLM-Alaska, said that kind of work needs to be done in the summer. She said the contracting process can be lengthy and it will probably be next summer before that work begins.

She said there is no greater risk associated with the delay. The debris has been out there for a long time and will get frozen over during the winter, she said.

BLM manages the reserve, where more than 130 wells were drilled under the federal government’s direction as part of an exploratory oil and gas program from the 1940s to the 1980s. State leaders have pushed for progress on the cleanup and insisted it is a federal responsibility.

Curtis said the money for the initial surface work has been identified. But it’s not clear what the total cost to address the priority sites might be, and Curtis said additional work will be dependent upon funding.

Curtis said she expected the final version of the draft plan to be released soon. The initial hope was to have the plan finalized within weeks after the draft was released. But Curtis said it took a little longer than expected to get comments from interested parties. She characterized the comments BLM received as generally supportive of the top priorities the agency identified.

Cathy Foerster, a commissioner with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission who has been critical of BLM’s handling of the legacy well issue, said she was encouraged that BLM was working with her group and others and taking their comments into account.

Foerster said she agrees with BLM on the highest-priority wells but worries that the agency doesn’t seem concerned about other sites. She remains concerned about the availability of funding and is taking a wait-and-see approach on any work that’s done.

“I won’t feel good until the work is done and I’ve seen how it’s done,” she said.

Curtis said the draft plan is meant to cover short-term issues. She said the intent is to look at additional sites once the highest-priority sites are addressed.

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