Saturday, February 27, 2010

Oil industry sinkhole threatens to swallow city

By Bryan Nelson
Tue, Nov 10 2009 at 4:30 AM EST

BAD CAVERNS: Unlike the Carlsbad Caverns, collapsed brine wells like this one in nearby Artesia, N.M., aren't natural. (Photo: National Cave And Karst Research Institute/AP)
"U.S. 285 south subject to sinkhole 1,000 feet ahead," reads a bright yellow sign along the stretch of highway heading through Carlsbad, N.M.

Normally a motorist driving through the area might not find a sign like that unusual. The city is, after all, home to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a network of some of the largest natural caverns in North America. But on this occasion, the sign's sharp colors make the message clear: what's happening in Carlsbad is not natural.

In fact, the massive sinkhole currently running through the center of town was created by the oil industry. As MSNBC reports, it was formed over three decades as oil field service companies pumped fresh water into a salt layer more than 400 feet below the surface and extracted several million barrels of brine to help with drilling.

If it collapses, the unnatural cavern is likely to take with it a church, a highway, several businesses and a trailer park. Massive fissures currently cleave through town, and one business owner has said that structural cracks have even formed in his store.

"It would be like a bomb going off in the middle of town," said Jim Griswold, a hydrologist with the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division. The problem is so severe that the Eddy County Commission declared a state of emergency last Thursday, and they hope that state and federal funds will arrive in time to fill the cavern before it collapses...continued..