Kirtland Air Force Base’s efforts to determine the extent of jet fuel groundwater contamination are “inadequate,” according to the New Mexico Environment Department, which is demanding new, deeper monitoring wells to determine the risk to Albuquerque drinking water wells.
The criticism, leveled in a letter Friday, comes after the latest Air Force data show contamination from a decades-old leak migrating northeast beneath southeast Albuquerque with no clear picture of how close the fuel is to the wells that provide drinking water to area neighborhoods.
“We don’t know how far it goes,” said Rick Shean, a water quality hydrologist with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. That makes it impossible to say how soon the contamination might reach the nearest wells, forcing a key part of the area’s water supply to be shut down, Shean said.
The Air Force has known at least since December about the uncertainty regarding how far the fuel has spread, but has not taken the necessary steps to determine the extent of the part of the spill “that represents the most serious threat to Albuquerque’s drinking water supply,” Environment Department Hazardous Waste Bureau acting chief John Kieling wrote in Friday’s letter.
An Air Force spokeswoman declined comment on the letter late Friday afternoon.
The utility’s water quality tests, funded in part by the Air Force, show the contamination has not yet reached the drinking water wells. If it does, the utility would have to shut down one of its most productive well fields, which are critical to providing water to that part of the city, officials say.
Experts say the contamination, found in groundwater some 500 feet underground, poses no threat to residents living above the migrating plume of fuel.
The utility has begun to discuss “contingency plans” for how it might provide water to the neighborhood if contamination reaches the wells, but there is no way currently to simply shut down the wells and still provide service, said spokesman David Morris.
The fuel came from underground pipes at a Kirtland aircraft fuel loading facility built in the 1950s. Air Force officials first noticed something amiss in 1999, but they think it had been leaking for decades. An Environment Department analysis concluded that as much as 8 million gallons may have leaked unnoticed over the years.
It was not until 2007 that Air Force investigations revealed the fuel had reached the water table and was moving off the Air Force base, beneath the neighborhoods of southeast Albuquerque and toward the city’s water wells.
Since then, the Air Force, under pressure from the Environment Department, has cast an ever-wider net of monitoring wells, trying to figure out how far the fuel has spread. The latest results from Air Force test wells show evidence of jet fuel in groundwater beneath the neighborhood around the corner of Louisiana and Anderson SE, more than a mile from the source of the leak.
So far, every test well drilled in search of the edge of the fuel plume has found evidence of contamination. As a result, the Air Force on April 2 proposed drilling three new test wells beyond the area of known contamination, including one close to the water utility’s nearest water supply well.
The utility complained that was inadequate, saying more wells, and deeper than those proposed by the Air Force, were needed to determine the risk to Albuquerque’s drinking water, Shean said.
The Environment Department agreed with the utility’s assessment, said Jim Davis, head of the department’s Resource Protection Division.
In the Friday letter, Davis’ staff called the three-well test plan “inadequate” and demanded 33 wells, including some deeper in the aquifer to see how close the contamination is to the water utility’s deep supply wells.
The first nine wells must be completed by the end of July, the Environment Department said, and the other 24 must be completed by the end of November.
The state’s legal authority to require the wells comes from the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, a federal law that gives the state regulatory authority over hazardous waste at Kirtland.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal