Substantial progress has been made when it comes to plugging old wells, but evidence of primitive methods used decades ago, geological knowledge deficiencies, and well-sealing jobs that fall short of today’s standards have prompted environmental and health concerns. These have included several wells in Alaska, more specifically several wells drilled between 1944 and 1982 by the US Navy and the US Geological Survey (USGS) when conducting an exploratory and scientific drilling program on Alaska’s North Slope in the area now known as the National Petroleum Reserve, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency tasked in 1982 with assessing and cleaning up the Navy and USGS’ mess. Some of these old wells were never properly capped. Citing Cathy Foerster, the petroleum engineer who heads the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, as its source, The Alaska Dispatch recently reported that some of the wells were filled with cement despite pipes and other materials still being inside. Another well is still leaking oil. In yet another instance, operators failed to retrieve tools that fell into drill holes. And the sloppy practices have resulted in accidents, including one in which gas ignited and blew up a well house after a tractor broke a gas pipeline back in 1950, the article stated. The Navy left behind solid waste, including half barrels and other drums submerged in oil seeps, at three Simpson Core Test wells, according to the BLM’s legacy well strategic plan. The Iko Bay Test Well #1 near a winter trail commonly traveled is leaking gas. Seven battery cores and what’s left of a burned-out rig were left at the Topagoruk #1 well site. These are among the list of well sites in the area of Barrow and the Simpson Peninsula southeast of Barrow, where the BLM said it will concentrate its cleanup efforts in the near term. The plan is a result of an assessment of 136 wells drilled by the Navy or USGS. The BLM has determined that 50 require action. Surface cleanup could begin as early as summer 2014. And the effort has been aided by proceeds from helium sales, part of a provision tucked into the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, signed by President Barack Obama on Oct. 2 – just before the federal government’s temporary shutdown began. The strategic plan unveiled in September 2013 is long overdue, and those behind getting the funding to help clean up these dangerous sites are to be commended. The article pointed out that the BLM did guide more recent effective cleanups by a 2004 BLM inventory, but these efforts were expensive with a price tag as high as US $18.7 million per well. “Those cleanups targeted wells drilled by the [USGS] after the mid-1970s, when the oilfield technology involved large pads and large reserve pits filled with waste that is now highly expensive to cart away and dispose of properly,” Rob Brumbaugh, a BLM minerals specialist who has been working on the legacy-well problems since the 1990s, said in the article. The plan released by the BLM is “the strategy for getting through the remaining problem wells as quickly and efficiently as possible,” the article said. “The agency is seeking to hire contractors to knock out up to 10 well cleanups in the first year and to finish six more within five years. The next 34 wells will be addressed in another plan expected to come out then.” While this plan is a step in the right direction, these situations should have never gone unresolved for so long to begin with, considering the potential dangers to human health, safety, and the environment. Let’s hope those, and others, who kept pressuring the feds to clean up these sites continue to closely monitor operations. Ensuring that the same responsibility and standards required of the oil and gas industry also are being heeded by the federal government is a must. Contact the author, Velda Addison, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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