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Letter: Feds Spill Oil Onto Alaskan Tundra Cleaning Up Old Gov’t Wells

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Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is demanding answers from federal officials about ongoing efforts to clean up old government-drilled oil wells in Alaska amid reports contractors weren’t taking proper precautions and even caused oil to spill onto the tundra.

“I have received reports that BLM [Bureau of Land Management] has not been requiring its contractors to follow industry standards, state and federal regulations, or approved procedures during the remediation process,” Murkowski wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

In at least two incidents, federal contractors didn’t use the right equipment to clean up wells in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), according to reports. In one instance, workers did not use a “blowout preventer” while working — a violation of state law.

In another case, workers lost control of the well and ended up spilling oil onto the tundra. The contractor then plugged the leak using a method that only makes the cleanup process cost more, according to Murkowski.

“This appears to have led to an incident with serious safety and environmental implications that could also have financial repercussions for the scope of future cleanup work,” she wrote. “Instead of remediating these abandoned wells once and for all, we appear to be witnessing an inexcusable repeat of the sad history of the federal government’s lack of stewardship in the NPR-A.”

Federal agencies have been working for years to plug so-called “legacy” oil wells in northern Alaska. These are 136 abandoned test wells drilled by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Geological Survey between 1944 and 1982. In December, the Department of the Interior said 47 wells needed more work and there were 18 that needed “immediate action,” according to Murkowski’s letter.

Alaska residents have been complaining about these well for years. Many wells weren’t properly capped by government workers and still leak oil. The Bureau of Land Management spent nearly $100 million cleaning up legacy wells from 2002 to 2013.

In February, BLM renewed its effort to clean up the legacy wells. It’s an expensive proposition since it costs up to $3 million just to mobilize a well site for clean up.

“These wells have really always been a federal responsibility,” said Steve Cohn, deputy director of resources at Alaska’s BLM office. “They were drilled by federal agencies for the purpose of trying to determine what the resources are in the area. But now it is our responsibility as well to make sure these wells are properly cleaned and remediated. ”

Alaskans have been critical of the government for not holding itself to the same standards when drilling oil wells. State papers have also blasted the federal government for doing a sloppy job cleaning wells, while heaping heavy-handed regulations on private companies doing drilling.

“If the government is holding private companies to a high standard with regard to operational safety and low environmental impact, it stands to reason that it should abide by its own standard with wells the government itself drills or has drilled,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial board wrote Friday.

Murkowski wants federal agencies to utilize industry technical support when cleaning up abandoned wells.

“Given the incidents that have reportedly occurred, I also encourage the Department to make greater use of industry and regulatory professionals in Alaska in its cleanup efforts,” she wrote. “Their expertise and dedication will help ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted and that Alaska’s lands and wildlife are protected as soon as possible.”

Posted by The Daily Caller.

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