The New Mexico Environment Department believes contamination from a Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill may still be moving toward Albuquerque drinking water wells, and has called on the Air Force to step up its monitoring and cleanup efforts.
In a March 27 letter, the Environment Department called the southeast Albuquerque spill, one of dozens of industrial contamination sites around New Mexico monitored by the agency, “the most significant groundwater contamination site in New Mexico.”
The Environment Department rejected an Air Force proposal to abandon a part of its cleanup effort, which Kirtland officials had argued was unnecessary because the groundwater contamination was “stable” – no longer moving toward drinking water wells.
Kirtland base commander Col. John Kubinec issued a statement saying the Air Force “will continue to work with the New Mexico Environment Department to determine their expectations and ensure we are in compliance.”
In November, then-Environment Department Resource Protection Division Chief Jim Davis told the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board of directors new tests suggested the fuel spill had reached equilibrium, no longer spreading through the groundwater, and that the risk it would reach drinking water wells beneath southeast Albuquerque “is relatively small.”
Davis has since retired. In a March 18 letter to water utility board member Maggie Hart Stebbins his replacement, acting division chief Thomas Skibitski, said the agency believes the most dangerous part of the contamination plume is still moving toward the utility’s wells.
Jim Winchester, spokesman for Environment Secretary David Martin, declined further comment, saying the department’s written correspondence speaks for itself.
Kirtland officials discovered in 1999 that an underground aviation fuel line had been leaking, possibly for decades. Subsequent investigation found that the fuel – possibly millions of gallons that leaked over the decades – had reached Albuquerque groundwater some 500 feet deep and was moving toward drinking water wells serving southeast Albuquerque.
The Air Force in January switched on a large new machine developed to suck fuel vapors out of the ground. But the Air Force also in December asked permission to abandon the next step in halting the contamination’s spread, an ambitious pump-and-treat effort to suck contaminated water from the ground and clean it. Submitted in December, the Air Force proposal said the pump-and-treat plan was no longer needed to halt the spread of contamination because of test results that show the underground plume of potentially cancer-causing chemicals was “stable.”
In its March 27 letter, the Environment Department disagreed. The most serious contaminant in the jet fuel, the chemical ethylene dibromide, “is not part of a stable plume.” The Environmental Protection Agency has classified ethylene dibromide as “extremely toxic to humans.”
Other contamination sites in the running for the title of the state’s worst include the South Valley Superfund site, where industrial waste contaminated drinking water wells.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal