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Legacy wells need full clean-up: Government wells still polluting Alaska, funding running short

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News-Miner opinion: After more than half a century, there may finally be movement in getting a series of polluting test wells on Alaska’s North Slope cleaned up. Many of the more than 100 wells drilled in the 1940s and 1950s were improperly capped after drilling, causing leakage and environmental damage. But these wells weren’t drilled by derelict producers, they were the product of surveying by the federal government. And it has taken considerable time, effort and funding to get the government at long last to make cleanup of the sites a priority.

The wells were drilled by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Navy 60-70 years ago. Though Alaskans have known about the issues for a long time and clamored to get the federal government to clean up its mess, the Bureau of Land Management, which is now responsible for the wells, has been surprisingly slow to act. This has become a particular point of contention with Alaskans and members of the state’s delegation in Washington, D.C., because of the government’s often high regulatory hurdles to oil and gas development by private companies. 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.

Until 2002, the effort to clean up legacy wells had little traction in the halls of government, despite potential impacts to wildlife and North Slope residents. Since then, awareness of the issue has grown, with dozens of the worst wells remediated. Much of that work has been done since 2013, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski was able to procure $50 million in funding for well cleanup. Despite cleanup of the wells being a stated priority for BLM, the agency wasn’t successful in arguing for more funding to deal with the problem until Alaska’s delegation did the heavy lifting.

To be sure, cleaning up the wells isn’t cheap: BLM spent $99 million between 2002 and 2013 cleaning up 21 of the most polluted sites. Since the 2013 funding came through, the agency surveyed all 136 wells and determined 50 were in need of remediation via site clean up, proper capping or other action. Three of those 50 wells have been cleaned up so far. This year, in the most expansive effort to date, another 18 are scheduled for cleanup. BLM officials expect that will exhaust the $50 million allocated in 2013, leaving 29 wells yet to be addressed.

At a cost of roughly $2 million per well cleaned up so far, that will mean roughly $60 million — maybe more — in funding. Given the history of the issue, it seems likely that Alaska’s senators will once again be the ones who move their colleagues to provide that funding. They should have the full support of their colleagues — and the Obama administration. It goes against basic notions of fairness to hold private industry to a higher or more restrictive standard than that applied to the government itself. Funding to complete the remediation of legacy wells should come in full and without hesitation. The clean-up policy on the North Slope shouldn’t be “do as we say, not as we do.”

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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