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Base’s Bill From Fuel Spill May Grow

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Albuquerque’s water utility wants the federal government to pick up the tab as it braces for the possibility that aviation fuel from an old Kirtland Air Force Base spill contaminates drinking water wells.

The Air Force has already agreed to pay the cost of stepped-up water quality monitoring – $59,740 to date. Now, in a proposed legal agreement obtained by the Journal, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is asking the Air Force to formally commit to reimbursing the costs of preparing contingency plans for dealing with any contamination that might reach drinking water wells.

The proposed agreement also says that the water utility believes the Air Force should be on the hook for any costs incurred by the utility in cleaning up contaminated water or switching to an alternative supply if the leaking fuel, which contains hazardous chemicals, ever reaches the municipal wells.

Millions of gallons of aviation fuel leaked undetected over a period of decades from the Kirtland aircraft refueling area. The leak was discovered and plugged in 1999, and officials have been working ever since to determine the extent of contamination and come up with a plan to clean it up. The nearest contamination is within three-quarters of a mile of the nearest drinking water well, though the latest Air Force report acknowledges it could be closer.

Air Force and water utility officials declined to comment on the specifics of the proposed agreement, saying they did not want to publicly discuss ongoing negotiations. But representatives of both organizations acknowledged discussions are under way to clarify the Air Force’s obligations to the utility as a result of the risk the spill poses to municipal water supplies.

“Historically, Kirtland Air Force Base and the Air Force have said they ‘own’ the problem, and they will do whatever is necessary to remediate the contamination and protect the groundwater,” said water utility chief executive Mark Sanchez.

Sanchez said the discussions are an effort to respond to concerns by the water utility’s board of directors for formal clarification about what that means. “The board has asked us to make sure that the public water supply is protected,” Sanchez said.

Col. John Kubinec, Kirtland’s commander, noted that no contamination has reached any wells.

“That hasn’t happened, and we don’t expect that to happen,” he said in an interview Wednesday. But it is important to have contingency plans in place ahead of time, Kubinec said.

“We really are just starting into that conversation,” Kubinec said.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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