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New Mexico Science

Science, climate, weather and water from a New Mexico perspective

State criticizes KAFB fuel spill cleanup change

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Regulators say switch to lower temperature furnace wasn’t approved

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A highly touted Air Force system for sucking fuel contamination from Albuquerque groundwater is using a less effective technology than planned and the Air Force made the switch without consulting state regulators, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.

The Air Force said the design change, which uses a lower temperature furnace to burn off fuel vapors, was made for fire safety reasons and that the system still meets the contamination removal requirements.

The system, turned on with fanfare that included a January news conference attended by dignitaries from around Albuquerque, was built to suck fuel from deep beneath Kirtland Air Force Base’s fuel loading facility, where a decades-old spill has contaminated Albuquerque groundwater, and then burn off the vapors in a furnace.

According to a May 23 letter from the Environment Department, the Air Force promised one thing when asking for state approval last year, then while the project was under construction last year quietly switched the kind of cleanup technology to one that removes contamination at a “significantly” lower rate.

“They didn’t put in what they told us they were going to put in, and they didn’t tell us why,” Tom Skibitski, head of the Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division, said in an interview.

The Air Force changed its original plan because of fire safety concerns, said Col. Jeff Lanning. Lanning did not dispute the Environment Department’s contention that the system as built will slow removal of contamination, but said the Air Force is still collecting its own data to determine how effective the machine has been in nearly six months of operation.

Despite the design change, “our system still meets the requirements,” Lanning said in an interview Friday. Lanning said the Air Force is still reviewing the Environment Department notification letter to determine how to respond to the department’s concerns, including that the change was made without proper notification to the state.

State officials and Lanning both said in interviews that, despite the dispute over the technology being used, the new system is removing contamination. “They are pulling fuel out of the ground,” said John Kieling, head of the Environment Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau.

The Air Force discovered the spill from a leaking underground fuel line in 1999. Officials believe fuel had been leaking for decades. In 2007, they discovered that it had reached groundwater and was moving beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood towards municipal drinking water wells.

The nearest drinking water well is less than a mile from the closest known area of groundwater contamination. Test results on the well, and a monitoring well drilled as a “sentry” between the drinking water and the fuel plume, have showed no contamination. An Air Force report filed with the Environment Department in April concluded that the area of groundwater contamination continues to grow, with the most serious area of contamination spreading at the rate of 80 to 200 feet per year.

The new fuel-sucking machine is an interim step to reduce the threat from the spill while a long-term cleanup plan is developed. It pulls fuel vapors from the ground, removing contamination from around the spill site before it can further contaminate groundwater.

The original plans, approved by the state last June, called for a high-temperature furnace to burn off the fuel vapor. But the final project uses a lower temperature furnace, according to a project report provided by the Air Force. The high-temperature furnace would have been capable of burning off contaminants at “a significantly higher rate,” according to the Environment Department’s May 23 letter.

Lanning said the change was required to meet fire codes because of the furnace’s proximity to the base’s current fuel aircraft fuel facility.

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