BLM: Not trying to avoid well clean-up in Alaska

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is not trying to avoid cleaning up abandoned wells in the Alaska Arctic by having them declared historic preservation sites, an agency spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The suggestion was raised with a draft report on so-called legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Notations for some of the sites in the draft — including one described as having a large amount of solid waste that poses a threat to local residents traveling through for subsistence purposes — referred to BLM preparing "a determination of eligibility" under the National Historic Preservation Act.

BLM-Alaska spokeswoman Erin Curtis said this is standard for sites older than 50 years old. She said it doesn't mean the sites will be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and even if they are, she said it doesn't mean BLM wouldn't be able to clean them up.

"There are many times when a site is determined to have historic value where we would 'mitigate' that value, knowing we were going to need to get rid of it," she said. "You can take pictures. You can put together a written history of what's on the site. There are lots of ways that you can mitigate that it has historical value, if it is determined to have historic value."

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 1980s. Wells are currently managed by BLM, and BLM-Alaska has been working with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC, and others to prioritize the remaining cleanup work.

There has been a difference in opinion over which wells are problems and which are properly plugged, something the agencies are trying to iron out as BLM looks to set and tackle priorities as part of a five-year plan.

Since 2002, BLM-Alaska has secured about $86 million to plug 18 legacy wells, Curtis said. It was brought up during testimony last year that BLM-Alaska gets about $1 million a year to manage legacy wells. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said recently that she had secured about $6 million for the work, but an aide said Tuesday that had passed committee but not the full Congress.

The issue of legacy wells has roused a strong response from AOGCC Commissioner Cathy Foerster and members of the state legislature and Alaska's congressional delegation. Murkowski, who has pushed for progress on the issue, told reporters last month that the important update was that BLM has been "working with us, rather than basically stonewalling us."

The legislature last year passed a resolution urging BLM to properly plug and reclaim the well sites as soon as possible, saying they pose "significant risk to surface vegetation, groundwater, fish, land mammals and sea mammals." The state House passed a similar resolution late Monday night, HJR6, which, in addition to urging action by BLM, also suggested the agency consider turning over responsibility for the cleanup and restoration to an entity that could "perform the work in compliance with federal and state regulations with greater cost-effectiveness." One option Foerster has raised is leasing the area to oil and gas companies and having them do the cleanup as part of their lease terms.

The resolution's sponsor, Rep. Charisse Millett, urged colleagues traveling to Washington, D.C., for The Energy Council conference this week to bring the issue up with members of Congress. In her floor speech, she said BLM's mission is to protect and preserve lands but "they are the absolute worst offenders in the state of Alaska."

Millett, R-Anchorage, took exception to the historic preservation process that BLM says it's required to go through, saying it could lead to historic designation of 48 sites.

"I would just ask this body, would any of you like to go see a national historic site that has leaking oil, drums of who-knows-what on the tundra, wood, debris, leaking gas?" she asked.

Judith Bittner, state historic preservation officer in the state Department of Natural Resources, said the process BLM expects to undergo is "very routine." She said it's possible some well sites could be deemed historically significant to Alaska but that would be considered as part of any cleanup.

Curtis said she was glad details of the draft report had gotten out, saying it provides an opportunity to clarify the language and BLM's intent.

"The BLM considers the cleaning up of the remaining legacy wells a very high priority issue and definitely something that we are moving forward to try to respond to," she said.

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Online:

HJR6: http://bit.ly/103IFou

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Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

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