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State and US officials are touting spending to plug “orphan wells.”

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ATCHAFALAYA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, La. – Stacks of valves, pipe networks and huge, two-story tanks pollute parts of the swampy landscape of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, rusting relics from sites where oil wells were drilled in the 1970s, an unwanted legacy of the energy industry that has long helped advance the economy of Louisiana.

They are among an estimated 2 million unclogged “orphan wells” in the US that have been abandoned by the companies that drilled them. According to the State Department of Natural Resources, there are more than 4,500 such wells in Louisiana. The owners cannot be located, have gone out of business, or otherwise cannot be made to pay in a state where there has been decades of political debate over laws and litigation about the environmental impact of oil and gas drilling.

The Biden administration plans to address the problem nationwide with $4.7 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in late 2021. Management officials recently joined their counterparts at the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in promoting the effort.

“The state and federal government need to clean them up because of the danger they pose,” said Martha Williams, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She visited the so-called B-5 drill site along with Thomas Harris, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary, Jack Montoucet.

The abandoned wells can leak brine from oil fields and carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, which are components of crude oil. They can also release methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In the wetlands of southern Louisiana, where salty water can exacerbate deterioration, abandoned wells threaten the environmental health of an area that is home to an abundance of wildlife: numerous species of migratory birds; deer, beaver, bear and a variety of other mammals; the once endangered alligator among many other reptiles. Coastal wetlands also serve as nurseries for crab, shrimp, and other fish species in the Gulf of Mexico.

Williams’ agency announced last year that it received more than $13 million in infrastructure bills to remediate 175 abandoned wells at six national wildlife refuges in Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Montoucet said the infusion of funds to plug the wells was welcome, but also pointed to the need for more surveillance by the state.

“With this new injection of cash and solving the problem that we have, I think we’re on the right track,” Montoucet said. “And certainly going forward, we’re going to have more regulations when people apply to drill to make sure those sites aren’t left that way.”

McGill reported from New Orleans.