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Surviving 285: Oil and gas boom wreaks havoc on southeast NM highways

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

First in a two-part series.

ARTESIA – This past summer, a 50-year-old Artesia man, a friend of Heather Lopez’s, was killed when the pickup truck he was driving east on U.S. 82 near Loco Hills slammed head-on into a semitruck.

It might have been that Lopez’s friend was having a difficult time seeing as he drove along the two-lane highway between Artesia and Lovington.

“It was about 6:30 in the morning. The sun was just coming up,” said Lopez, 45, the general manager and innkeeper at Artesia’s Heritage Inn.

But she can’t help feeling the sheer volume and accelerated pace of traffic on U.S. 82 due to the most recent expansion in the oil and gas business had something to do with it.

“With the oil field traffic, everybody is in a hurry,” she said about the roads here in Eddy County and neighboring Lea County.

“Everybody runs like it is the end of days. Drivers get impatient. Trucks pull out in front of cars. They figure they are bigger and you are going to stop.”

Figures compiled by Eddy County show there were 17 roadway fatalities in the county in both 2018 and 2017 and seven in 2016. In Lea County, according to the New Mexico State Police, there were 24 traffic fatalities in 2018, 12 in 2017 and 10 in 2016.

“There have been, I think, eight deaths on that highway (N.M. 128) between Jal and Carlsbad,” said Jim Harris, 76, director of the Lea County Museum in Lovington. “And the road south of Jal (N.M. 18) is all tore up. You cannot believe the kinds of holes that are in it now. It’s those oil trucks. I know they bring in the money, but they do the damage.”

‘I survived 285’

New Mexico’s current oil boom, which, according to Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, can be traced to the last part of 2016 and the first part of 2017, is pumping big money into the state’s coffers. And the state is looking at putting as much as $300 million to $400 million of that money into road projects statewide.

Folks who live in Eddy and Lea counties, where most of the oil and gas is produced, feel the bulk of that money should be spent to repair roads pummeled by the big rigs serving the industry and also to increase the capacity of roads jammed to a standstill by overflow traffic generated by the boom.

“There are as many as 100 trucks backed up at stoplights in Jal,” said state Sen. Gregg Fulfer, R-Jal, who is himself the owner of an oil and cattle company. “When (trucks owned by private contractors) are charging oil companies $130 an hour, that’s costing the industry millions of dollars.”

Jeri Strong, public information officer and oil and gas liaison for Eddy County, points to U.S. 285, which runs north and south through the heart of the county and is a two-lane road from Loving, 10 miles southeast of Carlsbad, all the way to the Texas state line 22 miles farther on.

“You can’t pass,” Strong said of that stretch of 285. “It needs super twos (a broader two-lane highway with occasional passing lanes) and widening of the shoulders. It’s dangerous.”

You don’t have to tell Leo Gonzalez that.

He and members of his wife’s family, the Vasquez clan, live in neighboring houses for several miles along 285 between Loving and Malaga, five miles to the south.

“There are three to four accidents a week from here to the Texas line,” Gonzalez, 47, said. “There are shirts going around that say ‘I survived 285.’ Semis don’t slow down. They cut you off. When you slow down to turn, they don’t stop.”

Hell on mailboxes

Wind chimes sing in the yard behind Gonzalez’s spacious, four-bedroom brick house as five dachshunds and a Chihuahua, quiet now after vigorously announcing the arrival of visitors, patrol the premises.

It’s a tranquil contrast to the bustling two-lane road in front of the house.

Gonzalez said the busiest times on U.S. 285 are weekdays from 5 to 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

“At 5 to 5:30 p.m., traffic is backed up at least three miles, sometimes all the way to Malaga,” he said. “My wife’s family is elderly. If they have an emergency at 4:30 p.m., how are we going to get to a hospital in Carlsbad? It can takes us 45 minutes to get to Walmart (in Carlsbad). It used to take 15 minutes.”

But he is not as bothered by slow-moving traffic as he is by traffic that doesn’t slow down at all.

The highway from Loving to the Texas border has been designated a safety zone, meaning that traffic laws are more strictly enforced and traffic fines doubled.

Apparently, not all drivers are getting the message.

Gonzalez said that last year, while driving home from Carlsbad with his wife, a son and a nephew, he stopped to turn left across traffic into his driveway on the east side of 285. But the semitruck behind him didn’t stop.

“The semi driver went on the shoulder between me and a mailbox,” Gonzalez said. “Me and my wife have been run off the road a lot here. Every mailbox from here on has been taken out. They have run over my water meter twice. We have found fire extinguishers, propane tanks, generators, a (6-foot-long) tool box and jacks lying in the highway. My daughter ran over a battery on the way home.

“I think they need a four-lane highway and a turning lane here. And drivers need to slow down. Other people live here.”

A lot of stress

Just north of Loving, N.M. 31, a two-lane highway, threads off to the north and east from U.S. 285 at an intersection made more complicated because fracking sand is hauled in by rail to a storage facility here, transferred into silos and later loaded on trucks. The result is one of those bottleneck situations that Sen. Fulfer refers to as “pinching points.”

Pinching points, Fulfer said, have a lot to do with the speeding oil and gas trucks so many people complain about.

“They are running so far behind,” Fulfer said. “They are getting calls every five minutes. ‘Where are you?’ It’s a lot of stress. When a two-hour ticket becomes a six-hour ticket it puts a lot of pressure on, and it’s costing oil companies and contractors.”

Speeding rigs not only chew up roads, which state and county governments are tasked with maintaining, but result in wear and tear on trucks and equipment and put the lives of truck drivers and others at risk.

Fulfer said New Mexico needs to address hazardous and constricting road conditions in the states’s oil patch region, not only to help prevent accidents but also to support a revenue-producing industry.

Old West, oil West

N.M. 31 loops up to connect with U.S. 62/180, which goes east to Hobbs. Driving along this highway and others in Eddy and Lea counties, it is sometimes possible to forget for a few miles about the oil and gas boom.

Traffic eases up for a while, maybe there’s just a lone oil derrick in the distance or a single gas flare on the horizon. You drive by a few windmills, some cattle grazing on winter-yellow grass and you get that Old West-never-died feeling.

It doesn’t last long.

Soon enough you notice the thick lengths of black water line snaking through the creosote and yucca toward drilling sites, drive over a hill and past a posse of pumpjacks and see a convoy of semis – green, white, orange, pale blue, dark blue, black, red, purple – heading your way or queuing up behind you.

Curtis Fort, a sculptor of Western and wildlife bronzes, lives in Tatum, 21 miles north of Lovington, the Lea County seat. Fort, 69, grew up in a ranch family at Tatum and was a working cowboy before turning to sculpture for a living. But he’s not bitter about the oil and gas boom.

“If it weren’t for the industry, Tatum would be a ghost town,” he said. “No matter what people say, minerals have supported ranching operations on and off many a time. Money doesn’t come in big chunks from cows. Oil and gas got some ranches through.

“So there’s three times as much traffic now, and there’s a piece of pipe in the road and you run over it. That’s just part of life. There’s jobs over here now. Remember when you were just begging someone to do a little business.”

Even so, Fort admits he avoids driving on roads south of Tatum, such as N.M. 18, which goes south from Lovington through Hobbs and Jal to the Texas state line; U.S. 82, which goes west from Lovington to Artesia; N.M. 128, which goes west from Jal toward Carlsbad; or U.S. 62/180.

“I don’t go to Carlsbad because it’s a nightmare,” Fort said. “From Artesia south, it’s just so congested. We don’t need to go that way, so we don’t.”

Oil rigs everywhere

But if Fort wants to get to Albuquerque to visit wife Carol’s family or to Corrales or Santa Fe to deliver a sculpture, it’s difficult to avoid U.S. 380, which runs west out of Tatum to Roswell and U.S. 285, which will take him north to I-40.

And U.S. 380, a two-lane highway, is bad enough, Fort said, not because of the oil business but because of out-of-state visitors heading to Roswell, Ruidoso and Ruidoso Downs and then back home.

“The traffic is pretty heavy,” he said. “They have widened the right of way but they have not four-laned it yet. If you’re heading to Roswell, especially on a Friday, you need to stay awake. They kill someone pretty regular between Tatum and Caprock (25 miles to the west).”

Fort said he has twice been run off the road by oncoming traffic in his lane, once when he was hauling a gooseneck trailer.

“You’ll meet traffic, 15 in a line, and then a middle vehicle will come out to pass,” Fort said. “If you want to stay alive, your only option is to go into the bar ditch.”

Lea County Museum director Harris writes history columns for the Lovington Leader and the Hobbs News-Sun in addition to his duties with the museum, so he drives all over Lea and Eddy counties.

He’s got 340,000 miles on his 2007 Ford F-150, four-wheel-drive pickup. He said he has been driving south on N.M. 18 into Texas for the past 35 or 40 years and that in the past five years, he has witnessed a remarkable transformation.

“There are oil rigs everywhere,” he said. “The number of vehicles is just madness. When I go through Jal at 3 or 4 in the morning, there are tanker trucks lined up at the intersection of N.M. 18 and N.M. 128. The biggest problem for a guy like me who just uses the roads is that it seems to me New Mexico has never put money into the road infrastructure as we should have. I drive over into Texas and the roads there are taken care of.

“We have not had our priorities straight.”

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