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Judge Allows Brine Well Inspection

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Carlsbad to determine cavern’s size, shape

LAS CRUCES — A state District Court judge has granted the city of Carlsbad permission to enter the privately owned site of a brine well in danger of collapse to determine the size and shape of an underground cavern and figure out a plan to avert disaster.

“We’re very happy we can now proceed with steps that can hopefully stabilize this issue and protect the citizens of the town,” said Carlsbad City Manager Harry Burgess on Friday.

The brine well, owned by I&W Inc., is similar to two others in Eddy County that collapsed in 2008. Officials with the state Oil and Conservation Division, which pressured I&W to plug the well in late 2008, believe there is a strong probability the brine well will collapse, leaving a gaping hole hundreds of feet wide at its location between the intersection of U.S. 180/62 and U.S. 285 on the south side of town.

The brine well site also borders the main canal of the Carlsbad Irrigation District, an RV park, a feed store and a church.

A city expert testified at a court hearing last month that the brine well is likely to collapse within five years, and most probably within two years unless preventive measures are taken. City officials plan a multimillion dollar effort to fill in the cavern beneath the brine well, but first must determine its size and shape.

“Time is probably the biggest concern at this point,” Burgess said. “We want to make sure all of this is accomplished before any collapse occurs.”

In the order issued late Thursday, District Judge Jane Shuler Gray said I&W must reimburse Carlsbad for the cost of a “characterization study” that will use sonar readings to determine the extent of the cavern. The study is expected to cost about $160,000 and take 60 days to complete.

Brine is an extremely salty solution used by oil companies in Texas and southeast New Mexico to drill wells. Brine is made by pumping water into underground salt formations and then removing the dissolved mixture, a process that over decades hollows out caverns.

The judge also ordered I&W to reimburse the city for the ongoing costs of operating a monitoring system to detect subtle shifts in the ground and an early-warning system designed to alert local officials if a collapse is imminent.

I&W attorney Phil Brewer did not return calls seeking comment.

The Oil and Conservation Division is seeking a $2.6 million penalty against I&W for failure to comply with terms of its discharge permit. I&W is contesting the state complaint.