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FAIRBANKS - The state says the U.S. government has not properly maintained abandoned wells left from federal exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska decades ago. Officials on each side say the problem could cost millions to fix.
Two of the wells have released crude oil and gas into the environment, and state officials fear more leaks will occur if the wells are not repaired. The federal Bureau of Land Management says it started working on the problem last year by inspecting and counting the wells.
"We figure there are 110 wells scattered around the 23 million acres, which is the size of the state of Indiana," said Ed Bovy, BLM spokesman in Anchorage.
It will take two more years to develop its inventory of the remote northern Alaska site, Bovy said.
BLM also is conducting a records search on the wells, which were drilled on behalf of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Geological Survey between 1944 and 1981, he said.
Exposure to extreme temperatures coupled with snow and rain have caused the wellheads to deteriorate over the years, state officials say. They say the wells should be capped according to state and federal standards.
Last year an official with the Native Village of Barrow reported that one of the wells was leaking crude onto the tundra at Cape Simpson. An estimated 30 to 50 gallons had spilled from a worn wellhead, said Tom DeRuyter, an environmental specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The well is located in the midst of naturally occurring crude oil seepage.
"There wasn't a lot of environmental damage, but clearly the well had not been maintained," DeRuyter said. "It is unknown how many other wells are in this same condition."
Several years ago, BLM reported to the DEC that a well at Umiat was leaking gas, DeRuyter said. The well has since been fixed, he said. DEC was concerned then about the leakage but has since placed gas leaks lower on its priorities list, DeRuyter said.
"The gas itself points to maintenance issues," he said.
Earlier this year the state asked BLM for $4,863.36 for responding to the cleanup at Cape Simpson. The BLM rejected the bill. The agency's then-acting state director, Linda Rundell, wrote that the federal agency is not responsible for the state's costs of monitoring BLM's cleanup activities. She wrote that the United States is protected by sovereign immunity and therefore is not subject to state oversight.
In March officials with the DEC and the federal Environmental Protection Agency co-authored a letter to BLM officials, asking them to develop a program to properly close the wells, many of which are more than 50 years old. They also noted the massive cost of such an undertaking but suggested the three entities work together to find funding.
"Both EPA and ADEC are concerned that these aging wells pose increasing risks to the environment due to their potentially deteriorating conditions and remote locations that limit routine inspection and security measures," wrote Ed Meggert of DEC and Carl Lautenberger of EPA.
In her response, Rundell maintained the position that BLM is not legally bound to take any action regarding the wells and disputed that any real contamination occurred at the Cape Simpson spill since crude oil had come from natural seepage already.
"Nevertheless, the BLM is presently undertaking a detailed inventory and analysis of each well site in order to assess the potential risks associated with the wells," Rundell wrote.
BLM's spokesman Bovy said it would take years to get a complete picture of what needs to be done. Most of the cost to repair the wells will be in getting materials and workers to the remote site, he said.