The earth is crumbling in West Texas. Scientists from Southern Methodist University have new research that shows two massive sinkholes between the towns of Wink and Kermit are expanding.
Years of drilling for oil and gas have helped wash away salt beds underneath the ground. A shifting water table has made the problem worse and in some places the ground is sinking five inches a year, according to the satellite readings.
Now there’s concern the pits could converge into one giant hole. “A collapse could be catastrophic,” SMU research scientist Jin-Woo Kim said.
These wounds in the West Texas desert have been around for years. The first hole opened up near an abandoned oil well on June 3, 1980. Twenty-two years later, about a mile away, the second one appeared. From the sky, they look like high-caliber bullet holes
“It's pretty scary. It's just a big huge pit,” said Winkler County Sheriff George Keely, who has peered over the edge many times in his career. “It's like standing on the moon looking into a crater. And you can see where it's just caved off. It’s broken off over the years more and more. When you look down there, you're looking at water.”
Water is the problem. West Texas, not far from Odessa, is oil country. Drillers started working near Wink in the mid-1920s. For decades, they injected water into the ground and destabilized the earth, according to the researchers. Meanwhile, as the water table shrinks, thick layers of salt are dissolved far below the surface.
It's like kicking the legs out from underneath a chair.
“We could have another sink hole or two or 10 someday show up,” Keely says.
In fact, the SMU researchers used satellite imaging to show the problem is getting worse. That's saying something because the holes are already big. One's 361 feet across. The other is nearly three times larger, more than a couple football fields wide.
Sheriff Keely says the sink holes are often the topic of conversation in the cafes of Wink and Kermit, where about 7,000 people live.
A few years ago, roads near town started buckling under the weight of 80,000-pound trucks rolling in from the oil fields. “The roads are sinking,” Keely says. “We have fissures in them now. Cracks. That's the scariest part.”
The companies that own the land have put up gates and fences around the holes and the county has blocked off a few roads. But there's still work that needs to get done. The pump jacks are still bobbing for oil. And no matter what he does, lookie lous have a way of sneaking under the fences. Trespassers will get arrested, he says.
“If someone were to fall in there, especially a child, it would be more than catastrophic.”
This segment aired on June 28, 2016.