Possible sinkhole threatens New Mexico town

Cookie and Ella Fletcher decided to call Thanksgiving off. This year, there seemed little to be thankful for.

Not far from the Fletchers’ mobile home in this small southeastern New Mexico city lies a giant underground cavity that geologists say is a time bomb waiting to implode. At any moment, they say, the cavity could collapse into a yawning sinkhole, taking with it a chunk of highway, a church, several businesses and the El Dorado Estates trailer park the Fletchers call home.

The cavity is the result of three decades of salt mining, a process in which oil service companies inject water into a salt layer 450 feet underground, allow the water to dissolve the salt, and then suck up the brine. Oil companies use the brine to help extract oil from the earth. Over the years, more than 6 million cubic feet of brine was removed from the Carlsbad well and sold for use in the oil fields that blanket the surrounding desert.

State officials singled out the Carlsbad well as a danger and ordered it closed after two similar wells north of town collapsed last year, leaving craters about 400 feet across and 100 feet deep. Those sinkholes caused little damage because they occurred in rural areas -- in fact, sinkholes are not unheard of in oil country.

But the Carlsbad brine well is smack underneath the busiest intersection in this town of 26,000, and it is only footsteps from a major irrigation channel and railroad tracks.

Local officials say a collapse would ravage the city’s economy and could do as much as $100 million in damage to the pecan and cotton fields that depend on the irrigation channel. El Dorado Estates residents say they would be left homeless; most are itinerant oil field or construction workers or retirees, like the Fletchers, who live on fixed incomes.

This summer, Ella Fletcher called up her brothers in Minnesota and Arizona and told them not to come for Thanksgiving. They told her they wanted to be with her, sinkhole or not. Finally, she relented.

“I told them, ‘If we all go together, that’s the way it was meant,’ ” she said.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, her brother, Dennis Peterson, and his wife, Carol, sat with the Fletchers at their dining room table, eating chocolate-covered peanut butter balls and catching up. The Fletchers’ elderly dog, Dallas, snored on the couch.

On the surface, life hasn’t changed for people near the brine well.

But every time the trailer shifts, every time a train clanks down the tracks, Ella Fletcher startles. Sometimes she goes to the window and looks out over a chain-link fence at the brine well property to make sure the old outbuildings are still standing.

(Carlsbad Caverns, the nearby national park that boasts an underground labyrinth of naturally occurring limestone caves, is not at risk.)

George Veni, who sits on a city committee charged with finding a remedy, said the city was considering carrying out a controlled collapse. Another, more popular solution would be filling the cavity, perhaps with silt or grout. One Eddy County official said that could cost $5 million to $40 million.

In the meantime, the state has set up sensors that regularly measure the tilt and pressure of the earth. Major changes will trigger an alarm that authorities say will give them several hours to get the 200 to 500 people in the area out of harm’s way.

Veni, who is also the director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, said that if the cavity collapses, it will probably begin with a 10- to 40-feet-wide hole, and then grow out.

“People are thinking that they’ll be driving and the highway will open up in front of them,” he said. “They let their imaginations get away from them.”

News of the possible collapse has the entire town abuzz. The Happy Valley Baptist Church held a day of prayer about the brine well. And Ella Fletcher said every time she and her husband leave the house, they run into people asking about the sinkhole.

“We go to the senior dance, they’re there,” she said. “We go to Wal-Mart, they’re there.”

“And we tell them, ‘There’s not a sinkhole yet!’ ” Cookie Fletcher said.

Some say the prospect of a sinkhole has already hurt the local economy.

A couple who had been living at the El Dorado Estates left because their insurance refused to cover them if they stayed. Jim and Iris Watson, the trailer park’s owners, said that several real estate brokers who had been interested in buying their property pulled out after they learned about the possible sinkhole.

Eugene Irby of the oil field service company I&W Trucking, which operated the brine well, said he was sued for loss of business by the neighboring Circle S Feed Store.

The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division has demanded that Irby’s business pony up the nearly $563,000 the division says it spent on testing the safety of the site, said Mark Fesmire, director of the regulating agency. Fesmire said he thought the company should pay to fill in the well too.

Irby said that was unfair. His company has operated on the land for only the last 13 years, he said, and has always followed state regulations, including performing annual pressure tests on the cavern. He thinks the state bears some responsibility because it issued the permits that allowed the company to operate the well.

As for the Fletchers, they have been trying to remember that the world is always full of dangers -- and that one never knows when tragedy will strike.

They say one thing gives them comfort.

“The Lord keeps me through this,” Cookie Fletcher said. “I know when my time comes, whether it’s in a sinkhole or on the highway, I know I’m going home.”