South Y will stay open during Carlsbad brine well work, businesses prepare to evacuate
All lanes of traffic in the South Y highway junction in Carlsbad will remain open during two years of construction work to remediate the Carlsbad Brine Well.
The intersection U.S. Highway 285 and U.S. Highway 62/180 is located directly above the former brine well recently discovered to contain an underground cavity about 450 feet deep, and 200 feet wide.
It’s one of the most traveled areas in Carlsbad and Eddy County, providing access to the Delaware Basin oilfield south of the city.
District 2 Engineer Timothy Parker, with the New Mexico Department of Transportation initially planned to close multiple traffic lanes, but presented an alternate plan at Wednesday’s meeting of the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Authority.
The new plan would move some of the roads slightly, but keep all four lanes open during the project.
Parker said about 42,000 vehicles use the roadway per day, and avoiding congestion is essential to the continued success of one New Mexico’s and America’s biggest oil plays.
“That’s the type of traffic that the South Y currently receives,” Parker said. “Geometrically, is basically staying the same. It’s a really good compromise when we can keep the same thing geometrically out there, when we know it is heavily trafficked.”
The biggest adjustment, Parker said, was to move the northbound ramp connecting U.S. 285 and U.S. 62/180 north to make room for staging.
He said concrete walls will be constructed to separate the roadways, and ensure added safety during the construction project.
The current medians will be removed, and two southbound lanes feeding into the junction will be moved to the north.
Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Ken McQueen, who chairs the Authority, said he pushed for keeping all lanes open during the project.
“There’s been a lot of work since the last meeting,” McQueen said. “I felt it was critical that we keep four lanes of traffic open.”
The road adjustments are a collaboration between NMDOT, and the contractor leading the project: Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, formerly Amec Foster Wheeler.
Carlo Evangelisti, traffic engineer with Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, the contractor for the project, said a traffic control plan is being devised along with the changes to local infrastructure.
The plan will be implemented in 2019, he said.
Evangelisti said the intention is to create a plan and project that will impact traffic as little as possible.
“The main purpose of the traffic control plan is to allow traffic on both the north and south sides,” he said. “The impact is pretty minimal. That’s the goal, really. We want to make sure it’s safe.”
Dale Ballard, manager of the Carlsbad Irrigation District worried that motorists would find alternate routes during the construction, and traffic could be stymied at railroad crossings.
“As we get into this process, people will find alternate routes around,” Ballard said. “We have numerous railroad crossings that need to be addressed around here. We really need some help from the DOT.”
Parker said railroad right of ways need to be negotiated, but NMDOT has struggled to communicate with local companies.
He said NMDOT does not have jurisdiction over railroad crossings.
“We can’t touch 25 feet from those crossings. It creates a lot of frustration,” Parker said. “Sometimes it just takes our elected officials to make some phone calls. We’ve had blood in our fingers trying to contact the railroad by phone.”
Construction starts in winter 2019
The actual remediation construction is expected to begin in February 2019, conducted Wood, formerly Amec Foster Wheeler.
The project will see high- and low-flow grout pumped into the cavity using 26 bore holes in the area.
The first grout campaign will use the high-flow grout to create a cap at the top of the cavity.
High-flow grout will be used to create a column system under the surface to support the cap.
Dan Kwiecinski, New Mexico operations manager for Wood, and the manager for the brine well project said the first holes will be drilled on the north, south, east and west ends of the property, and then crews will use a spiral pattern to move toward the center.
While grout is injected into the wells, Kwiecinski said thousands of gallons of brine will be removed carefully, to maintain cavern pressure as the grout goes in.
“When we’re not injecting into these wells, we’ll be pulling brine out to keep a nice balance,” he said. “What goes into the cavity must come out. It will be very important when we fill the cavity to maintain that pressure.”
Recent monitoring showed the cavity was not empty as previously assumed, Kwiecinski said.
Rubble and rock structures were found along the sides of the cavity, and at the bottom.
He said this material could help the grout stabilize the surface even further, mixing with the existing material.
“In the original concept design, we thought it was just a full void,” Kwiecinski said. “As we did seismic work, we found that it’s not just a void, not a complete void. We’re going to take advantage of some of that structure on the sides, and some of it in the bottom of the cavity.”
Site surveying was conducted last week, he said, and the Phase 1 design, including conceptual drawings, was submitted to the state in June.
In September, Wood intends to upgrade the monitoring system, adding equipment further into the impact zone and closer to the border of the main cavity.
Currently, monitoring is conducted along the outer edges of the predicted subsidence zone if the well should collapse.
Phase 2 is construction, planned for February 2019, with grouting taking place during the following spring.
That will take about two years, and additional post-construction monitoring will follow.
Wood predicted the project would be closed out in fall 2023, records show.
But even as the grout is pumped in, Kwiecinski said the risk of collapse will be continually reduced.
He said the cavity would be about half grouted after about a year.
“You’re risk is significantly reduced as you do that,” Kwiecinski said. “That’s the concept that we’re looking at. As you get 10 percent in, it might be better than a 10 percent risk reduction.”
Nearby landowners negotiating to vacate
There are four main properties the Authority identified as at risk if a collapse occurred.
The Circle S Feed Store, Kingdom of Jehovah’s Witness church, a non-business property owned by a local family and the I&W property itself are all considered to be relocated McQueen said.
Dean Cruse, an elder with the church said a new church is being built for both congregations that met at the location in question, in northern Carlsbad near Happy Valley.
He said the church plans to leave the property by Sept. 1.
“We’re designing a new hall as far away from that South Y as we can,” Cruse said. “That’s going to take time.”
Elizabeth Shields, an attorney representing the nearby Eldorado Estates said the tenants are preparing to leave the property, but have not heard from the Authority.
The trailer park is about a half mile southwest of the church and feed store, and was not included in the Authority’s list of businesses needing to move.
But Shields worried a collapse could still affect residents.
“We are happy to start our conversations with you guys,” she said. “We understand our tenants are going to be impacted. We do have some long-term tenants that will be difficult to move in the event of an evacuation.”
McQueen said all four property owners were responsive to the state’s negotiations.
“We will have access agreements in place by next week,” he said. “Each of the four owners has individual needs so we’re trying create agreements tailored for each of them. We want to have as little impact as possible.”
As for I&W, McQueen said contact was made with the now-defunct company and he is confident a resolution can be reached without litigation.
“We’re trying to stay out of the lawsuit aspect,” he said. “And work through this as amicably as possible.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.