State: Work to remediate Carlsbad Brine Well could pose danger

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
  • What: I&W Brine Well project Update
  • When: July 11, 1:30 p.m.
  • Where: City of Carlsbad Municipal Annex, 114 S. Halagueno

State officials are warning residents and property owners in southern Carlsbad that work to remediate the I&W Brine Well – intending to prevent a collapse – could cause it to fall in during construction.

In a letter published on July 6 by the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), Cabinet Secretary Ken McQueen cautioned nearby property owners that the work to backfill the cavity could destabilize nearby ground.

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McQueen is the chair of the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Authority, overseen by EMNRD.

The work is not expected to cause a catastrophe, but McQueen cautioned that the equipment and work could temporarily destabilize the ground as the project is ongoing.

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“While this project is intended to reduce the threat, it may not immediately resolve the issue,” McQueen wrote. “There is a possibility that the active project further destabilizes the already unstable area, triggering a collapse.”

No state agency has the power to evacuate or condemn the affected area, read the letter.

The brine well was first decommissioned in 2008 when the ground was deemed unstable.

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.

A massive cavity was discovered below the surface estimated to be large enough to fit the New Mexico State Capitol twice.

The cavity is located directly beneath the South Y highway junction of U.S. Highway 285 and U.S. Highway 62/180, one of Carlsbad’s most used roadways, and a popular thoroughfare for oil and gas workers traveling to the oilfield south of the city.

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Railways cross over the cavity, along with the Carlsbad Irrigation District’s main canal, which provides irrigation water to hundreds of local farmers.  

Officials estimated a collapse could cause up to $1 billion in damages, lost tourism and litigation.

The project to backfill was funded with about $43 million in state and local dollars.

Concerns first arose in 2009, after two similar wells collapsed nearby, McQueen wrote.

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“In 2009, after two similar brine well cavities collapsed, EMNRD began studying the geologic conditions in your area and identified a high probability of a catastrophic collapse around the I&W brine well site,” read the letter.

McQueen speculated that the well’s collapse, without remediation efforts, could create a hole about 200 feet deep, and 400 feet wide.

A map of the South Y highway junction where a brine well could collapse creating a massive sinkhole.

McQueen worried monitoring equipment in place might not provide enough warning in case of collapse.

“An experimental seismic monitoring system was installed several years ago to detect the first sings of a possible collapse, but it is impossible to guarantee that the system will provide sufficient early warning,” read the letter.

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The remediation project would see contractor Wood Group— formerly Amec Foster Wheeler — drill 26 boreholes into the cavity, pumping out the brine water and replacing it with a combination of high and low flow grout.

Construction should conclude on Jan. 27, 2021, according to records.

Additional monitoring would follow, and the final closeout of the project was planned for Oct. 11, 2023.

An update on the project will be given by Wood during a public meeting held by the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Authority, at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, at the City of Carlsbad Municipal Annex, 114 South Halagueño St.

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The Authority will also hear a report from the New Mexico Department of Transportation as to a possible detour or traffic changes during the construction.

Read the warning letter: 


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