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Air Force steps up VA’s water supply review

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Feds, state develop plan to monitor supply well over KAFB leak

The Air Force has stepped up monitoring at the water well supplying the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque because of the risk of spreading contamination from a Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill.

The monitoring is one element of a newly developed “Source Water Protection Plan” developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the New Mexico Environment Department to ensure uninterrupted water for the hospital on Albuquerque’s south side.

The hospital now gets its water from its own well drilled in 1996-97 on the hospital’s grounds. The well is less than 1,000 feet from the nearest groundwater contaminated by a decades-old spill of aircraft fuel.

As a backup, the VA has the option of shutting the well down and shifting to a municipal water supply pipe, officials said.

Millions of gallons of fuel leaked undetected from a buried fuel pipe for decades, and the Air Force now faces a multi-million dollar cleanup amid fears of the risk to Albuquerque groundwater if the effort fails.

The fuel, smeared through more than a mile of underground water, is headed to the northeast, toward the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility’s nearest municipal drinking water wells. As a result, much of the public attention to the problem has focused on the threat to the water utility. Risk to the VA’s drinking water well has been viewed as a less serious risk because groundwater test results suggest the fuel is not moving in that direction. But the VA well is the closest drinking water supply well to the contaminated groundwater.

The well supplies 200,000 gallons per day for the hospital’s 2,000 patients and staff, plus another 200,000 gallons per day for outdoor watering during the summer, according to Juliana Hankins, the hospital’s chief of engineering.

The first line of defense is a pair of “sentry” wells drilled to monitor groundwater between the fuel spill area and the VA’s drinking water well, Hankins said in an interview. So far, all the tests there have come up clean. “Those have never had any hits,” Hankins said.

With Air Force funding, the water from the VA well itself is being tested monthly now, with a separate contractor testing samples taken quarterly to provide some redundancy. “The redundancy of water-quality monitoring is a prudent measure,” the VA-Environment Department team wrote in their Source Water Protection Plan. Those tests also have consistently come up clean, according to state records reviewed by the Journal.

The VA-Environment Department document formalizes the hospital’s plans for what to do if the sentry wells show contamination. The plan calls for immediately switching over to the already-existing water line from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, Hankins explained.

The plan also calls for further study of the possibility of other longer term measures, including research into treating contaminated well water.

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