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More aggressive cleanup announced for KAFB jet fuel spill

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

State regulators Wednesday announced new, more aggressive measures to clean up a massive Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill that has contaminated Albuquerque’s groundwater.

The state has concluded that cleanup at the site is not moving fast enough, New Mexico Environment Secretary-designate Ryan Flynn said Wednesday. “What I’m unwilling to do is to allow us to wait any longer,” he said.

Speaking at Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board, Flynn called the fuel spill “the number one priority for the New Mexico Environment Department.”

Air Force officials, speaking to the water authority board, endorsed the plan.

“The Air Force is fully responsible for this leak and fully responsible for solving it,” said Col. Tom Miller, the base’s recently installed commander.

The department has directed Kirtland to pump 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water from the ground by the end of October as a first step toward developing a technology for treating the dirty water – the first direct attack on the contaminated groundwater since the spill was first discovered in 1999.

The Environment Department is also requiring the Air Force to expand a system of vacuum pumps being used to remove contamination from soil beneath the base’s fuel loading center, where the leak first happened.

And by the end of 2014, the new directives require the Air Force to begin cleaning up the most difficult problem in the fuel spill, ethylene dibromide, a hazardous chemical included in some of the spilled fuel that officials fear poses the most difficult cleanup challenge.

Miller said the Air Force is in agreement with the milestones set by the Environment Department. “We’re going to meet them,” he said.

The more aggressive cleanup effort marks a turn in the state’s approach to the problem since Gov. Susana Martinez in April appointed Flynn, who had been the Environment Department’s general counsel, to head the agency.

As the regulator, the Environment Department is in the driver’s seat, with the legal authority to tell the Air Force how to handle the problem. Until now, the agency has not required any of the sort of steps announced Wednesday, Flynn acknowledged in an interview.

“The Air Force has done the work that the Environment Department has asked of them so far,” he said.

Air Force officials say they discovered leaks in an underground fuel line in 1999, but they think fuel had slowly been dribbling out for decades. A state Environment Department scientist estimated that 24 million gallons of fuel may have leaked out over the years.

The stepped up efforts grew out of a series of meetings among officials from the Environment Department, the Air Force and the city-county water authority. Water authority officials have complained about the pace of the cleanup, but said they lacked the legal authority to step in and force faster action. The authority’s nearest drinking water wells, which supply water to residents of southwest Albuquerque, are 4,000 feet from the area of spreading contamination.

An independent investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently concluded that no contamination has yet reached the drinking water wells. But water authority officials are concerned about the loss of a significant part of the metro area’s water supply if the potentially hazardous chemicals in the fuel reach water supply wells.

Flynn said the meetings that resulted in Wednesday’s announcement were in part the result of an effort by the Environment Department to give the water authority more of a voice in the cleanup decision-making process.

John Stomp, the water utility’s chief operating officer, praised the process, saying it represents progress toward getting contamination out of the ground.

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