February 12, 2018

Large chunk of Carlsbad—and tax dollars—may get swallowed by sinkhole

A sinkhole is threatening to swallow part of Carlsbad.

In the meantime, it is poised to consume tens of millions of tax dollars.

The state House of Representatives voted 70-0 on Monday to send a bill to Gov. Susana Martinez that would take part of the taxes on car sales to pay for the remediation of a brine well that is at risk of collapsing.

“This is an absolutely critical bill for averting a disaster in [the] southern part of the state,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad.

The 350-foot-wide, 750-foot-long cavern sits beneath two major highways, a railroad, a mobile home park, an irrigation canal and businesses, she said.

And if it caves, all of that could go with it.

Senate Bill 226 would raise up to $30 million over the next four years for efforts to keep the well from collapsing.

This money would go along with other state and local funds for a project that some lawmakers said they expect will cost upward of $40 million.

The measure has won bipartisan support, with Democratic leaders in both chambers making it something of a priority. And backers argue the well’s collapse could have an outsized impact on infrastructure in an area that is an economic engine for the rest of the state.

But some Democrats questioned why the state government should be on the hook for the problem.

The well is the result of years of salt rock mined to create brine water, which is used for oil and gas extraction.

The legislation comes about a decade after two smaller brine wells in the Permian Basin suddenly collapsed in 2008. The state later identified the mine in Carlsbad was at risk of collapsing in the near future.

The company that owned the site, I & W Inc., filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and dissolved its corporation.

In the past year, Senate Democrats had argued Gov. Susana Martinez was supporting such funding to further distance the company and its president — a campaign donor — from liability. Her administration has rejected that assertion.

“I know that we need this desperately,” Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, told the House on Monday morning. “But I also don’t want this to be a black hole for the state.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.