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          Front Page

That Sinking Feeling

By Rene Romo
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Southern Bureau

          CARLSBAD — This city embraces nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to it each year, but another cavern hidden below a brine well on the city's south side has many here on edge.
        The brine well, owned by local company I&W Inc., is similar in key ways to two others that collapsed in 2008 in remote spots in Eddy County, opening yawning sinkholes in the Permian Basin, where oil and natural gas operations proliferate.
        An Oil Conservation Division report issued concluded that the probability that a gaping hole could open in Carlsbad is about 67 percent. That figure was derived from the fact that, of the 34 brine wells in the state, only three were less than 500 feet deep and produced large amounts of brine, and two of the three have already collapsed.
        In addition, state officials believe that the I&W cavern is at risk because of its suspected shape, being about as wide as it is tall. Taken together, those factors spell a problem, said Jim Griswold, an Oil Conservation Division hydrologist.
        "I can't tell you when, but everything indicates it (a collapse) will happen at some point," Griswold said.
        At his City Hall office, Mayor Bob Forrest echoed the thought: "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when. No one would hang their hat on the theory that it isn't going to collapse."
        Forrest said the consequences of a collapse could be "devastating."
        While state and local officials are addressing the problem now, who will shoulder the responsibility in the future is up in the air: The state wants I&W's owner to pay for ongoing monitoring and a permanent fix; the I&W owner says it's the state's job; and the city just wants to address the problem but is not sure where the money will come from.
        The cavern, the exact size and shape of which has not been definitively mapped, stretches below a 31-year-old brine well on Canal Street, at the busy intersection of U.S. 180/62 and U.S. 285.
        Along the I&W property's southwest edge runs the Carlsbad Irrigation District's main canal, which supplies water to about 22,000 acres of farmland. Beyond the canal is an RV park with 84 sites, all full at the moment. Flanking the brine well property is the Circle S Feed Store and a Jehovah's Witnesses meeting hall.
        "You couldn't have picked a more nightmarish spot for a brine well cavern," said City Councilman Ned Elkins, manager of the Los Alamos National Lab's Carlsbad office.
        Brine is saturated saltwater produced by injecting freshwater deep into solid salt formations, then pumping the liquid mixture out, a process that over years hollows out caverns. Oil and gas companies use brine water in drilling operations.
        In a compliance order issued Jan. 21 seeking a $2.6 million civil penalty against I&W, along with an unspecified remediation plan, the OCD said the brine well's location means "a collapse has serious potential for injury or loss of life and property damage."
        Now city and state officials are scrambling for a plan, which some say could cost tens of millions of dollars, to stave off a collapse.
        The big questions, said Dudley Jones, manager of the Carlsbad Irrigation District, are: "Can it be done in time? And where do we get the money?"
        New well moratorium
        Alarm bells began going off at the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department after the 2008 collapse of the Jim's Water Service brine well about 20 miles northeast of Carlsbad.
        Two days later, knowing that the Carlsbad brine well pumped from a similarly shallow depth — less than 500 feet — and had pumped a similar volume of brine, an OCD official pressured I&W to halt production at its well. The company plugged the well with cement at OCD's request.
        After a second sinkhole opened with the collapse of another brine well 25 miles east of Artesia, the state energy department issued a six-month moratorium on new brine wells. The department also sought detailed data from operators of the 35 brine wells in the state, but the state says I&W did not respond.
        Four months later, OCD pressured I&W to move trucks off its Canal Street property out of concern that the weight of the vehicles might cause a collapse.
        Since then, a consultant, hired first by the state but now paid by the city of Carlsbad, has installed an elaborate network of ground sensors and tilt meters to detect subtle shifts of the surface above the brine well cavity and to provide an early-warning system in the event of a collapse.
        Whose responsibility?
        Lowell Irby, the owner of I&W since 1995, declined to discuss the situation in detail, instead referring questions to his attorneys. But he questioned whether his company should be held responsible for addressing the problem.
        "Our thing is the Oil Conservation Division made some bad decisions and is now trying to make us pay for it," Irby said. "People who know us know we don't walk away from anything or any responsibility."
        The state claims I&W, since 1996, has violated multiple conditions of its permit.
        Irby attorney Lucas Williams said he was not authorized to comment on the matter.
        State Rep. Candy Spence Ezell, R-Roswell, whose husband's law firm is representing I&W, and state Rep. William Gray, R-Artesia, both said they thought the state had treated I&W unfairly.
        "That company follows every order that OCD sent down. What more can they expect from them?" Ezell said. "And now the OCD, in my opinion, is using scare tactics?"
        Gray said the state's shutdown of the I&W brine well amounted to an uncompensated seizure of the company's assets and added that he wasn't convinced the well would collapse.
        Stabilizing the brine well by refilling the cavern could cost $30 million or more, the mayor said.
        Neighbors worry
        Iris Watson, who co-owns the El Dorado Estates RV park separated from the I&W property by an irrigation canal, is trying to stay positive.
        City officials say the early warning system should provide residents with four to eight hours to evacuate if a collapse is imminent.
        "Right now, we are a little more confident that it (the cavern) will be filled in rather than collapse," Watson said. "We'd like to see it resolved, and then everyone can go on about their lives."
        The nearby Jehovah's Witnesses' meeting hall has already developed cracks in the wall closest to the I&W site, said elder Dean Cruse.
        Jones, the irrigation district manager, said his chief concern is that, if the I&W cavern collapses, the extremely salty water could push up and saturate a shallower layer of freshwater, which many farmers tap to supplement irrigation water. The underground cavern is estimated to hold about 34 million gallons of brine, which could contaminate more than 80,000 acre-feet of groundwater, according to OCD.
        If the irrigation district's main canal is breached, and the flow of freshwater to farmland is halted while a new canal path is purchased, engineered and built, the financial impact on agriculture could be between $49 million and $100 million, Jones said.
        For now, the state is trying to force I&W to shoulder the costs of continued monitoring and to reimburse the OCD $563,000 for costs already incurred for the monitoring and early warning system.
        Meanwhile, the city of Carlsbad is pushing ahead with its own lawsuit, filed in mid-January, in an attempt to gain court approval to enter the I&W property, drill through 400 feet of cement in the plugged well and conduct detailed sonar readings to characterize the shape and size of the cavern.
        With the information, the city will try to devise a plan to fill in the cavern, perhaps with potash tailings and stabilize the ground.

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