Carlsbad Brine Well construction project to last two years

Roads are being moved, and filling the well will begin in February.

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
  • The Wood Group was contracted to design and implement remediation project.
  • Workers begin digging trenches and milling the ground to create access roads.
  • Grouting will be pumped in to fill the well, starting in February.

Construction work at the Carlsbad Brine Well began this month as crews re-positioned access routes and brought materials to the site ahead of February’s predicted remediation start date.

Located directly beneath the South Y junction of U.S. Highway 285 and U.S. Highway 62/180, the well was deemed unstable in 2008, and its collapse was estimated to cause potentially $1 billion in damages and litigation.

The Wood Group was contracted earlier this year to design and implement a project to fill the cavity with grout, while pulling out the remaining brine water.

More:Traffic will remain steady during Carlsbad Brine Well work, contractor says

Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) Ken McQueen, who also chairs the Brine Well Remediation Authority, said on Tuesday that 10 holes were drilled for monitoring equipment, and demolition of buildings on the I&W property would take place in the next 30 days.

He said about $2.5 million was spent on the project as of Tuesday.

During the last legislative session in January, New Mexico lawmakers passed numerous bills to provide about $43 million in state funds to the project.

Workers adjust access roads at the South Y in preparation for remediation of the Carlsbad Brine Well, Dec. 12, 2018 in Carlsbad.

“Right now, we’re on schedule and on budget,” McQueen said. “This was a very localized expenditure. Next year is going to be very busy. Everything must go according to plan.”

More:New Mexico lawmakers call for transparency during brine well project

McQueen, who served in the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, said the incoming governor Michelle Lujan Grisham should continue to support the project as a top priority for the State of New Mexico and EMNRD.

He said he met with Lujan Grisham’s transition team and emphasized the importance of remediating the well.

“I told them EMNRD’s top priority is a successful remediation,” McQueen said. “We’ve identified it as a major project with them, so that it gets done to the best benefit of the citizens of New Mexico.”

Workers adjust access roads at the South Y in preparation for remediation of the Carlsbad Brine Well, Dec. 12, 2018 in Carlsbad.

Now that the funds are in place, keeping the project as a top priority means ensuring it continues on schedule, and contractors are held accountable for the work, said John Heaton, Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway’s designee to the Authority.

“It’s keeping the contractor to do what they committed to,” Heaton said. “We need to move the project aggressively. The funding is there, so it’s a matter of following through.”

More:Carlsbad brine well project to conclude by 2023, construction starts in August

Heaton said that once the grout campaign begins filling in the well, the biggest challenge will be maintaining cavern pressure as grout is poured in and brine water is pumped out.

The entire process, expected to begin early next year was planned to take two years.

If pressure falls too rapidly the earth held up by the brine could sink and potentially crack, he said.

“They need to make sure the pressure is maintained, so that they don’t lose control of the overburden,” Heaton said. “It’s very delicate. They’re going to have to be very cautious. It’s a big engineering challenge.”

A diagram of the Carlsbad Brine Well shows the main cavern and subsidence zone.

To monitor pressure, Wood upgraded its monitoring systems at the site in October, read a fact sheet put out by the contractor in late November.

That work included drilling five deep boreholes with pressure control, and then 10 more shallow holes without pressure control.

More:State Land Commissioner challenges brine well bills

These holes are drilled 12 hours a day, every day until the end of the year, read the release.

In early 2019, Wood plans to begin coordinating with the New Mexico Department of Transportation to restrict traffic to about half the lanes around the South Y during the project.

More:Gov. Susana Martinez approves $30 million for Carlsbad Brine Well fix

The remedy itself will involve pouring low-mobility grout to create a support for the root of the cavity, then filling the rest with a combination of high-flow grout and available brine.

A grout cap will be installed, read the release, and grout columns will be installed to support the cap.

The cavity, records show is 720 feet long, 450 feet wide, 200 feet deep and lies about 425 feet beneath the surface.

For about 30 years the brine well, owned by I&W produced brine water for use in the oil and gas industry.

Workers adjust access roads at the South Y in preparation for remediation of the Carlsbad Brine Well, Dec. 12, 2018 in Carlsbad.

In 2008, two other nearby brine wells caved in, creating large sinkholes, and the I&W well was soon after deemed unstable.

More:'Sinkhole' collapse worries local workers

The wells operated by injecting fresh water into underground salt formations, dissolving the salt to create brine, but also creating subsurface cavities.

Although it has yet to collapse, the Carlsbad Brine Well’s location beneath the South Y makes its instability a significant risk to the local community and infrastructure, read the release.

“The surface area potentially impacted by a collapse may exceed the footprint of the cavity and could cause damage to infrastructure and property, disrupt interstate travel, commerce, and local agriculture, and pose a threat to public safety,” read the release.

U.S. Highway 285 is a main thoroughfare to the Delaware Basin portion of the Permian Basin, where the recent boom in oil and gas activity resulted in about $1.4 billion in surplus funds for the state of New Mexico.

Heaton said a successful remediation is essential to ensure the industry continues to boom in southeast New Mexico.

More:The path to $43M: Can Brine Well Authority secure state funding?

He said he hoped the incoming administration would see the importance.

“Fixing this is critical to the oil and gas industry, which is critical to New Mexico,” Heaton said. “I can’t imagine any administration that wouldn’t make this a high priority. The concern should carry over.”

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