Tuesday, February 9, 2016

House pushes brine well bill, Senate taps breaks Carlsbad Current-Argus By Jessica Onsurez

My note: I seem that fact that the State of NM OCD issued the permit allowing this well to be drilled and mined has been lost in the discussion. House pushes brine well bill, Senate taps breaks Carlsbad Current-Argus By Jessica Onsurez Even as experts say that the brine well under U.S. 285 South is in danger of becoming a massive sinkhole soon, state house and senate committees are taking a closer looking at funding a fix. The house Judiciary Committee has set the bill aside pending a hearing on Feb. 10. Committee member Sen. Paul Wirth said that the committee is hoping additional information will clear up some senator's questions about the remediation of the brine well. "We've got a figure out a solution, so we held it over so that we cold bring in the secretary of the Department of Transportation and the head of risk management because the concern is the liability that the state currently has and the liability that could be created if we form this new entity," Wirth said. House Bill 112 sponsored by state Rep. Cathrynn Brown called for an appropriation of $150,000 from the general fund that will be used by a remediation committee to apply solutions to the threat. Brown said that she is asking House Speaker Don L. Tripp to push the bill through to the house finance committee ahead of the budget vote expected Saturday, with a few amendments. HB 112 passed 8-0 in the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife committee on Feb. 3 and was referred to the Government Elections and Indian Affairs committee. Those amendments include a sunset clause of 12 years, and a more definite location of just where the brine well is located. Brown said that the money for the well is being held within the budget and no adjustment to the amount seems to have been made. If the bill is passed with amendments that could mean up to $1.8 million through 2027. But Brown said the efforts to address a potential public safety issue are being threatened by rumors of political misconduct. An article published by the Santa Fe/New Mexican alleged that Gov. Susana Martinez who is throwing her support behind the bill, received campaign contributions from the former owners of I&W Inc., Lowell Irby and his son Eugene Irby. The well is the result of mining operations by I&W, who filed for bankruptcy before they could fix the potential sinkhole. According to data from the New Mexico State Secretary website, contributions from the Irby family totaled $19,750 between 2010 and 2014. "I believe what's really happening now is that people are trying to turn it into a political football. We must separate the issues and deal with what we think is a serious need to move forward," Brown said. "I think the issue is, how do we start dealing with this potential catastrophe? The politics seem to be clouding that issue. I just don’t think it's wise to hold up this project over some speculation." Michael Lonergran, spokesman for Martinez's office, said that the governor's interest in the brine well is securing public safety. "The governor called on the legislature to consider this issue because it’s a public safety concern that needs to be addressed in a timely fashion," Lonergran said in an emailed statement. Despite the supposed impact of the article, state Sen. Gay Kernan, a supporter of the bill, said that the senate version is still up for debate. "I think the goal is to try and convince people that it makes a whole lot more sense to fix the problem before it becomes too big to address," Kernan said, adding that in her opinion the controversy hasn't yet seemed to impact the way the bill is considered among her peers. The bill's senate version, SB 8, was sponsored by Sen. Carroll Leavell, and passed the Senate Conservation Committee last week in a 5-4 vote. Sens. Joseph Cervantes (Dona Ana), Peter Wirth (Santa Fe), William Soules (Dona Ana) and Richard C. Martinez (Sandoval and Santa Fe), all Democrats, voted against the bill passing the conservation committee. "I did vote against it in the conservation committee, which I chair, out of concern we were taking on a liability at the state level that we don’t currently have," Wirth said. "After now hearing the additional testimony in senate judiciary I've come to the conclusion that the state most likely already has a liability because of the roads that go over the top of this and what happens if this thing collapses when you’ve got 50 people over top of that road." Leavell, who represents Eddy County in the House, said that it's not unusual for a bill to be set aside for a hearing. "They want to know more about whose responsible and how did it get to this particular phase," Leavell said. Wirth said that in addition to liability questions, the bill's funding is a big question mark. A proposed oil and gas tax bill sponsored by Sen. John Smith (D-District 35) contains a mechanism to provide funds for the brine well remediation in Carlsbad which could likely answer the question of how to afford fixing the problem. A permanent solution to the brine well could have a price tag of up to $25 million, according to reports from the New Mexico Environmental Department. The brine well has already built up a bill of about $350,000 annually for maintenance and operations from the state Reclamation Fund, according to the Oil Conservation District. Carlsbad leaders are hoping their input on the issue will help keep the focus on the need to get this bill passed. "There is going to be a hearing about this topic on Wednesday. The Mayor and myself, along with members of our brine well technical subcommittee, will be travelling to Santa Fe to testify," said Carlsbad City Manager Steve McCutcheon. "We look forward to discussing this issue that is of high importance to the entire state." The state of the brine well itself is causing local concern with recent recorded activity indicating additional instability in the cavern that reaches 400 feet below the surface. "On three occasions since early 2014 significant cavern events were detected which correspond to not only seismic responses but also rapid declines in observed cavern pressure," said Beth Wojahn, communications director for the Oil Conservation District.

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