Abandoned Mine Lands

“Orphan well” capping reclaims closed part of Wildlife Management Area in Pulaski County 

By Brad Bowman  

Eagle Well Service employees plug a well at the Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area.

As a part of Governor Andy Beshear’s Better Kentucky Plan, which includes $25 million in grant funds through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to plug up to 1,400 abandoned or “orphan” oil and gas wells across the Commonwealth, the Division of Oil and Gas (DOG) had identified and overseen the plugging of 18 wells on a wildlife area that had been closed to the public. 

Due to this, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources will soon make available for public recreation more than 500 acres in the Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  

The Rockcastle River WMA in Pulaski County covers 2,924 acres, with two areas totaling 513 acres along Acorn Ano and Buren Turner roads that were deemed off-limits for public safety due to the presence of preexisting natural gas wells. 

Dennis Hatfield, director of the Kentucky Division of Oil and Gas, credited field inspector Matt Adkins for the work that led to the identification, mapping and plugging of the orphan wells at the Rockcastle River WMA. 

“We’re just doing our job,” Adkins said. “I’m glad to get the rest of the WMA open to the public.” 

The $540,000 well-plugging contract was awarded to CMC Inc., which subcontracted the work to Eagle Well Service, both Kentucky companies. The entire process took about six months to complete, Adkins said. 

Ben Robinson, wildlife director for Kentucky Fish & Wildlife, said completion of the project is a big win for hunters and other wildlife recreationists. 

Abandoned well at Rockcastle.

“More than 500 acres of the area, which previously had to be excluded from public use because of safety concerns, can now be opened.  It also eliminates the potential for public confusion about portions that can’t be used for recreation.” 

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) will  update its signage on the ground and WMA map at fw.ky.gov in order to officially open the additional acreage to the public.  The process is expected to be completed by early 2023. 

“We appreciate the partnership of EEC’s Division of Oil and Gas to assess site needs, secure federal funding, oversee contractors to perform the needed remediation work, and work with our staff to ensure the affected vicinities were rendered safe to access by the public,” said Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Rich Storm.    

“State-owned wildlife management areas such as Rockcastle River WMA not only protect land and provide vital habitat for Kentucky’s natural heritage in perpetuity, they support jobs and infuse cash into local businesses from hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers who recreate there.  Each acre of public hunting land returns more than $182 per year on average in economic benefits to Kentucky’s communities.” 

The Energy and Environment Cabinet estimates there are 14,000 orphaned oil and gas wells throughout the commonwealth. As many as 700 wells could be capped through the $25 million in funding through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL).  

Abandoned well at Rockcastle WMA later capped.

Often concealed by woodlands, bodies of water or residential and industrial development, most orphan wells were drilled and abandoned between the 1860s and 1960s before the state established permitting and bonding requirements. Orphaned wells are mostly in the southern, eastern and western parts of the state where there were concentrated areas of early oil and gas development.  

Initial capping efforts will focus on those wells prone to leak crude oil, brines or natural gas; negatively affecting Kentucky’s water resources, soil and air quality. As wells deteriorate, they adversely impact communities, damage crops, property and the environment.  

Selected well plugging projects are ongoing in Lawrence, Lee, Estill, Ohio, Warren, Webster, , Daviess, and Christian counties and have been completed in Pulaski, Powell, Henderson, McLean, Union, and Daviess counties.  

To date, contractors have plugged 193 orphan wells out of the 628 sites awarded grant funding. The Division of Oil and Gas has the potential to receive an additional $78 million in the next phase of the five-year BIL program.  

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