Carlsbad, N.M., officials are struggling to find and force the sealing of abandoned water wells despite vows to do so after a boy died after falling into an old well in March.
Carlsbad police and fire officials swore they’d never let such an accident happen again after 4-year-old Samuel Jones’s body was pulled from an abandoned well on March 5.
After Jones’ death, public complaints and grief over the situation prompted the City Council to ask anyone with an open well or hole of any kind on their property to report it to the city. The city’s police and fire chiefs were tasked with identifying abandoned well sites in the city and surrounding areas, City Administrator Jon Tully told the Carlsbad Current-Argus.
Fire Chief Mike Reynolds and Assistant Fire Chief Rick Lopez said the city can’t do it alone.
“People have to identify them,” Lopez said last week. “We’re not actively out there looking at everybody’s property to find a hole.”
Three wells have been identified and two sealed. But one well near the city’s airport remains unsealed after the property owners failed to respond to letters demanding action.
“We’re working with the state engineer on that one,” said Reynolds. “It’s a 20-inch diameter well pool with steel casing. I measured it at 80 feet (deep).”
For perspective, Lopez said that the well Samuel fell into was only 12 inches and 30 feet deep.
Bill Duemling, the Carlsbad Basin Supervisor of the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, has identified the hazardous hole as an irrigation well dating back to 1945, about the same age as the well in the lot next to Samuel’s home.
Both are believed to have been constructed before the water basin was regulated, including requirements for wells to be registered with the state.
On April 2, Duemling sent a letter to the current owners of the property on which the well is located, stating that it was their responsibility to fill and seal the well. “Abandoned wells of this type pose a threat to the safety, health, and welfare of the public and can create an avenue for groundwater contamination,” he wrote.
But so far, the property owners have been unresponsive, and nothing has been done to fix the problem, said Lela Hunt, a state engineer’s office spokeswoman.
“That’s where the big hang-up is,” said Lopez. “It’s the property owner’s job to fix it.” And so far, no legal authority has been given to the city or the state engineer to enforce the well to be covered in a timely manner.
“The problem we all have is that if we find them, there is really no quick, legal, and effective way to eliminate them without a lawsuit to abate a nuisance,” said Tully. “We’re attempting a legislative fix.”
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