On my last road trip down to Carlsbad, New Mexico I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck that said, ‘I survived 285 to Orla Texas’. Orla, Texas is basically a ghost town right in the middle of the Permian Basin, south of Carlsbad, on Highway 285. This stretch of highway is symbolic of the many benefits of the oil and gas boom of southeast New Mexico and the many hazards that usually accompany any rapid explosion of population and traffic. However, not everyone survives and safety is not number one on the priority list of O&G.
Locals in southeast New Mexico have a new name for that section of U.S. 285 south of Carlsbad — Death Highway. In 2018, there were 49 crashes (20 involving a heavy truck), up from 31 crashes (15 truck-related) the year before. The deaths are the tragic consequences of the biggest oil boom the Permian Basin has ever seen. While this “black gold” rush has turbo-charged southeastern New Mexico’s economy it has also brought new dangers to the area’s small towns and rural farming communities.
And it’s not just U.S. 285. State Routes 31 and 128, part of an asphalt triangle that connects Carlsbad, Hobbs and Jal to the south, along with a sea of wells in between, also have become danger zones.
There is another stretch of 285 north of Carlsbad all the way up to Cline’s Corner that also has heavy trucks carrying dangerous radioactive material to WIPP just east of Carlsbad. There is a huge difference in the quality of drivers and roadway north of Carlsbad compared to south of Carlsbad. It is quite obvious what has to be done with the culture of risk on south 285, but for some reason, urgency is not one of them.
For the last 20 years, WIPP trucks have hauled 12,500 payloads of hazardous cargo with drivers traveling over 14.9 million miles and there have been no leaks of radioactive material, personal injuries or environmental issues. The primary reason for this is the overall safety culture with the high-quality drivers and carrier compliance to the rigid regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation. WIPP is expected to receive up to 37,000 shipments from federal (DOE) storage facilities and I suspect without incident.