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Jet fuel cleanup lags goal

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A Kirtland Air Force Base system intended to pull contamination from beneath the base’s aviation fuel spill site continues to have performance problems. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

A Kirtland Air Force Base system intended to pull contamination from beneath the base’s aviation fuel spill site continues to have performance problems. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A large vacuum system completed earlier this year to suck contamination from the ground beneath a multimillion gallon jet fuel spill at the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel loading area continues to fall short of design goals, according to documents exchanged earlier this month between the Air Force and the New Mexico Environment Department.

According to a Dec. 20 NMED memo, the “soil vapor extraction” system was designed to remove 90 pounds per hour of contamination from the soil but is only removing 55 pounds per hour.

Despite the problems, environment department in its Dec. 20 memo gave its formal approval for the soil vapor extraction system, one of a number of interim steps the state has mandated to try to deal with the fuel spill.

“I’m satisfied with the performance of the equipment that they have out there,” Tom Blaine, director of the Environment Department’s Environmental Health Division, said in an interview Friday.

University of New Mexico engineering professor Bruce Thomson, a water quality expert recently appointed to Kirtland’s Citizens Advisory Board, called the machine’s problems “just another in a long series of missed deadlines and under-performance.”

“For 12, 13 years they’ve been dragging their feet,” Thomson said in an interview.

Despite the problems, NMED and the Air Force are pushing ahead with plans to expand the work, but that process is also delayed.

The original state deadline for the Air Force to submit its expansion plan was Dec. 31, but the Air Force two weeks ago asked the state for an extra month. Blaine said the state plans to grant the extension, and said he did not believe it would delay actual cleanup work. Despite the vapor removal machine’s current problems, Blaine believes Air Force and its state regulators have learned enough to expand the system.

The Air Force discovered in 1999 that fuel had been leaking, likely for decades, from underground pipes at its Kirtland aircraft fueling station. A New Mexico Environment Department scientist later estimated that as much as 24 million gallons may have spilled over the years. In 2007, Air Force environmental workers found fuel floating on the water table some 500 feet beneath the base, and in subsequent years workers have found contaminated groundwater beneath southeast Albuquerque neighborhoods, a mile from the spill’s source and moving in the direction of Albuquerque drinking water wells. The New Mexico Environment Department recently estimated the spill is within 5 to 7 years of reaching the nearest drinking water well. An independent review by scientists with the federal Centers for Disease Control last summer concluded that the risk to public health is low, but that the only way to prevent exposure might be to shut down some Albuquerque drinking water wells.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is currently in the midst of developing a contingency plan to either treat the contaminated drinking water or replace it should the fuel spill reach the nearest drinking water well.

The “soil vapor extraction” system was never intended to attack the main problem – contamination already in the water. Its purpose was to help keep the problem from getting worse by removing fuel still in the soil that has not yet reached the aquifer. As yet, there is no plan to remove contamination from the water.

Kirtland officials revealed the soil vapor system’s performance problems in a Dec. 4 memo to the state Environment Department.

An Air Force spokesman said the machine’s problems resulted from silica dust contaminating a catalyst used in combination with an oven to destroy the contaminants after they are sucked from the ground. Its performance problems date to April, and repairs have thus far been unsuccessful, base spokesman John Cochran said in an emailed statement in response to Journal questions. Cochran said it is not clear when repairs will be completed and the machine restored to full performance.

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