Large Portions Of West Texas Sinking At Alarming Rate, New Report Finds

Mar 26, 2018

A twisted pipeline stretches above Wink Sink No. 1, showing the force of the collapse of tons of dirt.
Credit Rafael Aguilera

Nearly two years after a pair of giant West Texas sinkholes gained national attention, new research in the area shows they likely won't be the last in the region.

report released Thursday by geophysicists at Southern Methodist University says a 4,000-square-mile area near the "Wink Sinks" is showing signs of alarming instability.

“The ground movement we’re seeing is not normal. The ground doesn’t typically do this without some cause,” SMU geophysicist Zhong Lu said in a statement.

The Wink Sinks — two gaping sinkholes that sit between the small towns of Wink and Kermit atop the largely tapped out Hendrick oilfield — gained national attention in 2016 after a study revealed they were at risk of collapsing into each other as they grew and the land around them sank.

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But the new report says the damage could be much more widespread. Over almost three years, researchers tracking geological activity over four oil patch counties in the Permian Basin found that decades of oil activity and its effects on rocks below the surface of the earth has contributed to the area’s ground sinking and uplifting — including one area where the ground sank almost 40 inches.

The report warns that the area of instability could be larger than the surveyed land — and that the entire region is vulnerable to human activity because of its geology.

“This region of Texas has been punctured like a pincushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s, and our findings associate that activity with ground movement,” study co-author Jin-Woo Kim said in a statement.

previous SMU report focused on the Wink Sinks, warning that they were continuing to grow while the land around them was sinking. Kim said Texans in the area should pay special attention to roads like FM 1053 near Imperialthat are experiencing rapid sinking. 

"When residents take the roads, they may need to be alerted. Also, the rapid subsidence will not be stopped in a few years, creating cracks and potholes," Kim told The Texas Tribune. "Therefore, Texas [Department of Transportation] may need to suspend the use of the roads, or if needed, they have to consider relocating them.”

The Texas Department of Transportation could not be reached for comment as of Thursday afternoon.