Lawmakers move to address failing cavern in Carlsbad

The New Mexico Transportation Department installed signs in 2009 along U.S. 285 in Carlsbad warning drivers of a potential sinkhole at a brine well operation along the roadway. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

There’s a potential catastrophe waiting to happen near a busy intersection in the southern New Mexico city of Carlsbad, officials said Tuesday.

Experts told state lawmakers that something needs to be done about the giant cavern that has formed at the edge of the city near the intersection of two major transportation routes – U.S. 285 and U.S. 62/180.

Nearby is a canal that delivers water to farmers throughout the lower Pecos Valley and a neighborhood of mobile homes.

“This is a very potentially catastrophic and serious situation,” David Martin, head of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, told members of the Senate Conservation Committee.

State officials pointed to a 2014 study that indicated the cavern could fail within 10 to 25 years. They warned lawmakers, however, that more recent information has accelerated that estimate.

Martin is among those supporting a bill that would allow the state to begin working on solutions for the slowly collapsing cavern, which was formed over decades by a brine well operation at the site that has since gone bankrupt.

The legislation would create a quasi-government authority that would be made up of elected officials from Carlsbad and Eddy County as well as some state agencies and the Carlsbad Irrigation District. The group would be tasked with leading remediation of the brine well, which could include condemning the property.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, would appropriate $150,000 annually to support the authority while lawmakers determine how to pay for the work that will be required to make the area safe again.

That could entail backfilling the cavern or inducing a controlled collapse and fixing whatever damage results to the nearby highways and the canal. The cost could be anywhere from $25 million to $50 million, state officials told the committee.

Currently, the state is spending about $350,000 a year monitoring the cavern.

Legislative finance analysts and state budget hawks have voiced concerns about creating another agency and spending more money. Some committee members also raised questions about condemnation of the property, because it’s tied up in bankruptcy court and because the state would incur liability if it took over the parcel.

The brine well first came to the state’s attention in 2008 after two other wells in remote locations collapsed and spurred a review of all brine well operations in New Mexico.

Produced by injecting water into underground salt formations, brine is used by the oil and gas industry for drilling operations.

The well at the edge of Carlsbad shared similar features with the two that collapsed.

Research suggests a collapse of the Carlsbad well could stretch 1,000 feet wide by nearly 2,000 feet long, an area that includes U.S. 285 and U.S. 62/180 – highways that are designated transportation routes for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

There is also a church and a railway line in the area, and officials have concerns about groundwater contamination.

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