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Many new oil and gas wells escape federal oversight

| Sunday, June 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

NEW CASTLE, Colo. — Four in 10 new oil and gas wells near national forests, fragile watersheds or areas otherwise identified as higher pollution risks escape federal inspection, unchecked by an agency struggling to keep pace with America's drilling boom, according to an Associated Press review that shows wide state-by-state disparities in safety checks.

Roughly half or more of wells on federal and Indian lands were not checked in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, despite potential harm that has led to efforts in some communities to ban new drilling.

In New Castle, a tiny Colorado River valley community, homeowners expressed chagrin at the large number of uninspected wells, many on federal land, that dot the steep hillsides and rocky landscape. Water is a precious commodity in this Colorado town, and some residents worry about the potential health hazards of possible leaks from wells and drilling.

“Nobody wants to live by an oil rig. We surely didn't want to,” said Joann Jaramillo, 54.

About 250 yards up the hill from Jaramillo's home, on land that was a dormant gravel pit when she bought the house eight years ago, is an active drilling operation that runs every day from 7 a.m. to as late as 10:30 p.m. Jaramillo said the drilling began about three years ago.

Even if the wells were inspected, she questioned whether that would ensure their safety. She said many view the oil and gas industry as self-policing and nontransparent.

“Who are they going to report to?” she asked.

Government data obtained by the AP point to the federal Bureau of Land Management as so overwhelmed by a boom in a new drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that it has been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest-priority wells. That's an agency designation based on a greater need to protect against possible water contamination and other environmental and safety issues.

“No one would have predicted the incredible boom of drilling on federal lands, and the number of wells we've been asked to process,” said BLM's deputy director, Linda Lance.

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