Senate declines to put money into a hole

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In this 2009 file photo, empty water tanks sit at the edge of a brine well operation, shown at right of tanks, as a major irrigation canal flows by in Carlsbad. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

SANTA FE — The cavern created by an old brine well in Carlsbad could collapse at any moment — destroying highways, threatening a trailer park and causing $750 million in damage, officials said Thursday.

But a $35 million plan aimed at heading off the disaster ran aground in a Senate committee Thursday — after opposition by an unlikely coalition of environmental groups and officials under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Opponents said they agreed the potential crisis deserves immediate attention, but that the package of bills proposed by Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, would draw from the wrong pots of money.

Leavell and other supporters proposed tapping into a variety of state funds dedicated to environmental cleanup, water projects and roads, among others, over a period of several years. The cavern is expected to collapse by 2022, he said, unless it’s filled in

“This is actually a ticking time bomb,” Leavell told the Senate Conservation Committee.

But Democratic and Republican senators alike rejected the legislation on a 6-1 vote.

Some opponents said a gasoline tax increase could provide money for the project instead, or perhaps an appropriation out of New Mexico’s basic operating budget, which is expected to have about $292 million in extra spending capacity in the coming year.

Others questioned whether the local governments in Carlsbad are doing enough to address the problem.

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, wanted to know why residents of a mobile-home park haven’t been evacuated already.

“Are you waiting for someone to die before you rub it in our face?” he asked at one point.

The money sources proposed by Leavell are necessary for environmental cleanup and other projects throughout New Mexico, Martinez said.

“While I feel the state has some responsibility,” he said, “I don’t think that raiding all these other funds is fair to the state of New Mexico.”

The cabinet secretaries for the state departments of Environment and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources urged senators to find other sources of money, not the funds targeted by Leavell.

Supporters, in turn, said the accounts they’ve proposed tapping into have already helped the state. They were among the funds from which money was “swept” into the basic operating budget amid the state’s budget crisis in recent years.

Former state lawmaker John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Advisory Authority, said he and others have searched everywhere for money and “don’t have any other place to go.”

“We’re racing against time, and we’re racing against gravity,” Heaton said.

Two similar wells have already collapsed, he said, in remote areas. Now the land around the Carlsbad brine well is showing fractures, Heaton said.

Monitoring equipment is in place to provide a warning if a collapse appears imminent, he said, but even if people escape in time, there would be tremendous damage to two highways, an irrigation canal that feeds nearby farmland, a church and other structures.

After the meeting, Leavell said he wouldn’t give up and that he remains optimistic about finding another funding source before the legislative session ends Feb. 15.

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This sinkhole, which formed in 2008 northeast of Carlsbad, shows what could be in store for a brine well south of the city. (Courtesy of National Cave and Karst Research Institute)

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