House to consider bill to prevent Carlsbad well collapse

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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers are racing to build a financial package aimed at preventing the collapse of an old brine well in Carlsbad – a catastrophe that could damage two busy highways, an irrigation canal and a trailer park.

With just a few days left in this year’s session, a House committee on Sunday endorsed legislation that would authorize tapping into about $6.4 million in annual revenue generated by taxes levied on the sale of motor vehicles.

The goal is to help raise $35 million to $43 million over the next few years to address the old well, filling it in to prevent a total collapse. The city of Carlsbad and Eddy County would also contribute to the project, and legislators would dedicate some of their capital outlay money.

Diverting about $6.4 million in motor vehicle taxes to help pay for the cleanup would be a temporary measure.

But Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, told her colleagues on the House Taxation and Revenue Committee that the proposal is an immediate necessity. The collapse of the well could kill people, she said, in addition to inflicting $750 million in economic damage.

“We’re better off paying for it now and avoiding catastrophic losses,” Brown said.

The proposal, Senate Bill 226, still requires approval by the full House to make it out of the Legislature and to Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk. The Senate passed the bill 37-0 last week.

But time is running out. This year’s 30-day session ends at noon Thursday.

The bill is sponsored by Sens. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Carroll Leavell, R-Jal.

Leavell said the well’s collapse could damage the intersection of U.S. 180/62 and U.S. 285, perhaps the busiest highway intersection in the region.

“You stand a real chance of loss of life,” he said Sunday. “It couldn’t be placed in a more dangerous place in southeast New Mexico, I promise.”

The brine well was in operation for roughly 30 years, ending in 2008. State regulators said a similar well wouldn’t be approved today, but no one understood the risk at the time it was permitted.

The private company that owned the well filed for bankruptcy protection, and state and local funding is the only option for the cleanup, supporters said.

The well was once used to create saltwater, or brine. Water was pumped in to absorb the salt, then the resulting saltwater was used in oil production.

Two similar wells have already collapsed in remote areas.

George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, told lawmakers that the cavern created by the brine well is already damaging the ground above it.

“The collapse is already happening,” he said. “It’s happening right now in slow motion. … This is amazingly urgent.”

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

The bill considered Sunday is the second attempt at finding money for cleanup this year. A Senate committee last month rejected a proposal that would have drawn on a variety of state funds dedicated to environmental cleanup, water projects and roads, among others, over a period of several years.

Sunday’s proposal cleared the House committee 13-0 and now heads to the full House for consideration.

House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, both of Albuquerque, co-sponsored the proposal, House Bill 332.

Gentry said the proposal is a cost-effective strategy that’s been shown to improve student performance.

The text notifications to parents would be required when a high school student’s grade point average falls bellow 2.0 on a 4.0 scale or below 70 percent on a scale that goes to 100.

The notifications would also go out two days before certain tests – “a state-, school-district- or charter-school-required assessment.”

The bill, which passed 64-3, now goes to the Senate.

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