As much as 24 million gallons of jet fuel might have escaped from a decades-long leak in an underground Kirtland Air Force Base pipe, three times more than previously estimated, according to a new calculation by a New Mexico Environment Department scientist.
Officials cautioned that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the number, and that they may never know how much fuel has spilled. But new data from state-mandated monitoring wells show the fuel in soil beneath the spill site is more widespread that previously known. And regardless of the specific number, the new data show the spill is larger than previously known, state officials said.
The news raised alarm bells at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which has two large water well fields near the contamination site. The contamination is less than two miles from the nearest well.
“It scares the heck out of me,” said John Stomp, the water utility’s chief operations officer.
Kirtland spokeswoman Marie Vanover called any attempt to estimate the spill’s size “speculative in nature.” Regardless of the amount of fuel under ground, the Air Force is committed to clean it up, Vanover said Tuesday.
The Air Force is in the midst of installing giant vacuum machines drilled deep into the heart of the contaminated area that will begin sucking out and burning jet fuel later this year.
Vanover noted that no contamination has been detected in Albuquerque’s supply wells.
“The water is safe,” she said.
The new calculation by Environment Department geologist Will Moats was brought to light by Dave McCoy of Citizen Action, an activist group based in Albuquerque that has been pushing the Air Force and other government agencies to act more quickly to deal with the problem.
“I think they’ve got to do more than they’re doing right now,” McCoy said in an interview Tuesday.
McCoy said the higher estimate suggests the fuel spill could be significantly harder to clean up than previously believed.
Moats, part of the Environment Department team working on the spill, did a calculation in 2010 that yielded a widely used estimate of 8 million gallons. In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Moats said that when new data from more extensive Air Force testing of the extent of soil contamination was plugged into the formula, it yielded an estimate of 24 million gallons.
In the same interview, Moats’ boss, Jim Davis, cautioned that the 24 million number was just a crude estimate, and did not represent the agency’s official position about how much fuel was in the ground.
“You’ll never know the actual volume released,” said Davis, head of the Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division.
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 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.
The state has asked the Air Force to drill more wells to determine how close the contamination is to the nearest Albuquerque drinking water wells.
McCoy said he plans to bring up the issue this evening at a meeting of the water utility authority board. The board meeting begins at 5 in the council chambers at Albuquerque City Hall.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal