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EPA assessment sought for fuel spill

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Two New Mexico citizen groups, concerned about what they say is slow progress in dealing with Kirtland Air Force Base groundwater contamination, have repeated their call for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an independent review.

In a letter last week, the groups called on the EPA to conduct its own preliminary assessment under the federal Superfund law of the risks posed by the fuel spill, which has contaminated groundwater beneath Kirtland and adjoining neighborhoods and is moving toward Albuquerque drinking water wells.

Dave McCoy of the Albuquerque-based Citizen Action, who is leading the push for EPA intervention, complained that the Air Force and state Environment Department are not pursuing cleanup “in any meaningful way.”

McCoy, joined by the environmental group Amigos Bravos in filing the request, argued that independent expertise is needed, given the scale of the problem and threat it poses.

State officials disputed McCoy’s contention, pointing to an accelerated cleanup effort launched during the summer that includes expanded soil vapor and water pumping to try to reduce the contamination. They said bringing in the EPA would have the opposite effect McCoy and the other signatories to the letter intended, by slowing down the work.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said that he understood the public’s frustration with the progress, but that he believes the steps his department has taken in the past few months will speed up the cleanup. “We’ve been very aggressive,” Flynn said.

Air Force officials discovered a leaking underground fuel line in 1999. Subsequent investigation concluded that it had likely been leaking for decades, and a scientist with the New Mexico Environment Department estimated as much as 24 million gallons of fuel may have spilled into the ground.

“Superfund” is shorthand for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, a federal law aimed at the nation’s biggest and most serious hazardous waste contamination sites.

Invoking Superfund to spur cleanup would incur “devastating environmental and economic impacts to Albuquerque and its residents” by adding a layer of bureaucracy that slows down work, and adding the stigma of a major hazardous waste designation to properties in the area, Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester said in a written statement.

A year ago, the EPA turned down a similar request from McCoy and Citizen Action, saying the state was making significant progress.

University of New Mexico engineering professor Bruce Thomson, a groundwater expert who has advised local government officials on the Kirtland problem, said it is unlikely that the EPA will intervene because of a provision in federal law that exempts petroleum spills from Superfund. But Thomson said he agrees with McCoy’s impatience with the current monitoring and cleanup process.

“It’s not moving fast enough,” Thomson said in an interview Monday.

Citizen Action’s full complaint and related documents can be found here.

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