Lawmakers seek Gen. Fund dollars for Carlsbad Brine Well fix

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
Rep. Jim Townsend, left, Chair of the Carlsbad Brine Well Authority John Heaton greet Carlsbad residents and leaders Jan. 29 in Santa Fe during the annual Bat Brigade trip.

After a package of bills intended to sweep dollars from various state funds to pay for remediation of the Carlsbad Brine Well was tabled in a State Senate hearing, and the equivalent House bills were passed through committee without a recommendation, supporters of the project introduced new legislation that would tap the State’s general fund.

Senate Bill 201, introduced by State Sen. Carroll Leavell (R-41) would appropriate $35 million from the State’s General Fund into the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Fund.

An identical House Bill 263 was introduced by House Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55), Rep. Larry Scott (R-62), and Rep. James Townsend (R-54).

The bills would make a one-time appropriation to be spent in fiscal years 2019 to 2021.

HB 263 was passed by a majority vote without recommendation in the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and supporters expect it to move on the Appropriations Committee.

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SB 201 was sent to the Senate Conservation Committee on Monday, where it is awaiting action.

“Getting $35 million that way will be remote,” Brown said. “But we’re doing everything we can. I’m just still focused on driving forward with the legislation. I am somewhat optimistic that there has been a meeting of the minds.”

The bills, coupled with $4 million each from Eddy County and the City of Carlsbad would raise the $43 million experts estimate is needed to backfill the cavity.

The project would prevent the former brine well, decommissioned in 2008 when the ground was deemed unstable, from collapsing into a massive sinkhole beneath the junction of U.S. Highways 285 and 62/180.

The sinkhole would also interrupt service to the Carlsbad Irrigation District, fed by a canal that flows above the well.

About 80 percent of the 25,000 acres of farmland supported by the canal would be unable to get water for up to 3 years, said CID Manager Dale Ballard.

Carlsbad Brine Well Authority designee John Heaton addresses the Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Legislative Committee Friday in Carlsbad. Heaton assured the committee that an emergency management plan was in place to respond to a collapse of the brine well.

Experts also predicted the collapse could prove fatal for nearby residents, or motorists.

John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Authority, said he and other members of the Authority have met with Gov. Susana Martinez and other lawmakers.

Heaton said he is optimistic the project will receive a portion of the needed funds by the end of the 30-day State legislative session ending on Feb. 15.

“We’ve got some bills in the air,” Heaton said. “You never know until it’s over. There seems to be a lot of interest in fixing it. It’s a question of how to do it.”

If the Legislature declines to help fund a fix, any remediation would be delayed as all the needed funds are required to be collected, per State procurement regulations, before the work can start.

“I’m very hopeful,” Heaton said. “Things change quickly up here (in Santa Fe). I’m very positive that all of this cobbled together will get us there.”

Another option, in the form of another senate bill introduced by Leavell, could also prove successful, Heaton said.

SB 226 would redirect the State’s motor vehicle excise tax from the General Fund into the State Road Fund.

More:Lawmakers seek Gen. Fund dollars for Carlsbad Brine Well fix

This would generate about $125 million in added funding for the New Mexico Department of Transportation, while the Authority would seek $35 million to go with the city and county contributions.

“That’s probably our best option to get significant funding,” Brown said.

During this year’s session, Heaton said, lawmakers were more supportive of fixing the well, although they struggled to identify the proper source of funds.

“It’s significantly different,” he said. “There’s been a little activity up here. I think there’s more awareness. There’s a sense of urgency.”

The collapse is expected in about 2022, and backfilling the cavern was predicted to take 2-3 years if all the monies are collected.

Heaton worried that any further funding delays could result in catastrophe.

“We’re right on the edge,” Heaton said. “It’s going to take some time to fill. We’re pushing up against the geophysical measurements. Every day that goes by, it becomes more imminent. The whole situation becomes more and more risky.”

State House Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55)

Recently cracks, holes and rockfalls were reported on the well’s property, and tiltmeters used to measure ground movement picked up changes in the earth.

“Those are real signs of a collapse,” Heaton said. “There’s not any bigger natural or man-made possibility of a crisis in New Mexico.

“We’ve got a few bucks coming from multiple directions. It would be nice to get the whole amount.”

Another potential funding generator for the brine well fix could be in the form of a $1.3 million appropriation attached to House Bill 2.

HB 2, the General Appropriation Act of 2018, authorizes expenditures by state agencies.

It was passed by the House on Wednesday, and Brown hopes it can continue through the Senate with the brine well attachment intact.

“That’s a bit of start-up money,” she said. “We’d like to see it stay in the bill. It’s a piece of the puzzle.”  

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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