A Republican state representative from Carlsbad appealed to lawmakers Wednesday to take the first steps in cleaning up an abandoned salt cavern that is predicted to collapse in her city within the next several years. Without action, experts say, the earth could crumble, pulling homes, businesses, roads and a church for Jehovah’s Witnesses into a sinkhole more than 400 feet deep.
House Bill 112, sponsored by Rep. Cathrynn Brown, proposes the formation of a committee charged solely with preventing this brine well in Carlsbad from collapsing, and it seeks $150,000 for staffing and research. Actual remediation costs for the well are estimated at $25 million or more. The House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee voted Wednesday to pass the bill on to the next House committee. A mirror bill introduced by Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, will be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.
The mine had been owned and operated by New Mexico-based I & W Inc. since 1995, but the company filed for bankruptcy in 2011 before completing any remediation work. On Jan. 25, Martinez asked the Legislature to consider the bill, citing it as a matter of public safety.
Many lawmakers agree that action to avoid a major collapse in Carlsbad is needed, but some Democrats question whether Martinez is backing the bill to further separate the company and its officials, who were significant donors to her gubernatorial campaigns, from taking responsibility for the damage it caused.
Lowell Irby, a pharmacist in Artesia and the former president of the now-dissolved I & W Inc., along with his son Eugene Irby, the company’s former secretary, and another family member contributed a combined $19,750 to Gov. Martinez’s campaigns in 2010 and 2014. Lowell also contributed $1,000 to SusanaPAC, the governor’s political action committee.
Eugene Irby said neither he nor his father would comment on the brine well or their contributions to the governor.
“That’s a bad situation, and it’s past and gone,” he said.
Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, said it was “a ridiculous notion” that her support for the bill could be related to the campaign financing and said the measure was solely about “a public safety concern that needs to be addressed in a timely fashion.”
But Debra Haaland, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said the link between the bill and the campaign contributions creates an appearance of corruption.
“Companies should be responsible,” Haaland said. “[When] somebody goes bankrupt, they can wipe their slate clean, which is not fair, and it’s a shame the taxpayers have to take this up.”
That sentiment was echoed by Democratic members of the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee.
“Where did the company go?” Rep. Bealquin “Bill” Gomez, D-La Mesa, asked Wednesday. “So nice and easy — cause a problem and walk away.”
There are nine active brine wells in the state — which pump freshwater into salt caverns to create saltwater used in oil and gas drilling. Collapses occur when a shallow well has a significantly larger width than its depth; if too much salt is removed, the well is hollowed, and the earth above it is unsupported.
Experts from the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department say the shallow depth and location of this well in Carlsbad make it the only one in the state that is in danger of caving in: It is 456 feet deep and thousands of feet wide.
The issue came to light in 2008, when two brine wells outside Carlsbad collapsed within a four-month period. Investigators then discovered that the mine beneath a busy intersection in Carlsbad was also at risk of a similar fate.
Both the city of Carlsbad and the state alerted I & W Inc. to the risk surrounding the well and asked the company to take steps to prevent a catastrophe — the city went so far as to sue the company and its insurance provider — but I & W Inc. took no action and instead filed for bankruptcy, according to an attorney for the state.
The insurance provider, Mid-Continent Casualty Co., also sued I & W Inc., saying the company had been negligent and could not seek insurance benefits.
Since that time, the state has spent $5 million researching and monitoring brine wells at risk of collapsing, and the well in Carlsbad is now linked to an emergency response system that alerts residents if the ground shifts significantly.
The city and state collected $3 million from I & W Inc. in liquidated assets.
“But it didn’t even cover what we had already done in terms of the monitoring work,” said Bill Brancard, general counsel for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
If the well collapses before remediation occurs, the cost to repairing road infrastructure and water systems, as well as homes and businesses, will far exceed tens of millions of dollars, according to the department’s Cabinet secretary, David Martin.
“We really need to do something because it would be catastrophic if it were to collapse,” Martin said.
In Louisiana, a brine well collapsed in 2012 and displaced more than 350 people.
Martin said experts estimate the well could collapse within eight to 23 years, but since 2014, three seismic events have occurred that suggest the mine is likely to cave in even sooner.
The authority created by HB 112 to begin the remediation process would include the Carlsbad mayor, the Eddy County Commission chairman and one representative each from the state Department of Transportation, the Carlsbad Irrigation District and the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources.
Once the committee is formed, it would start taking proposals on how to fill the cavern with salt or sand and concrete to prevent a collapse.
“We need to pass the bill so the authority can start dealing with this issue,” Brown said in an email. “There is absolutely no benefit to putting this off.”
Jim Griswold, Environment Bureau chief for Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, said permits now require operators to take responsibility for both plugging wells and surface cleanup.
“We are not going to let one of these get to this point again,” he said.
Still, a question remains about where money will come from to fund the remediation work.
“That’s the real $64,000 question,” Martin said during the hearing Wednesday.
He added: “I personally cannot imagine a worse place to put [this mine]. But we also know more today than we did 60 years ago.”
That understanding might never have developed if another brine well hadn’t collapsed.
On the morning of July 18, 2008, a brine well inspector headed to a well 25 miles from Carlsbad saw a plume of dust go up in the air. He stopped his truck with the engine still running, and as he stepped out of the vehicle, the ground in front of him collapsed, Griswold recalled.
The inspector jumped back in his truck and floored it in reverse.
Aerial photographs display a perfectly round crater near Artesia that was created as the brine well caved in.
“I ran into him about a week later,” Griswold said of the inspector. “He hadn’t slept and he was still drinking. So what it felt like, I’m not sure.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction appended: This story has been modified to reflect the following correction. An earlier version of this story said that Lowell and Eugene Irby contributed $19,750 to Gov. Susana Martrinez's 2010 and 2014 campaigns. That total included a $2,500 donation from another Irby family member.