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Santa Fe water project holds lessons for Albuquerque

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City of Santa Fe water managers Bill Schneider, left, and Alex Puglisi explain a system built to clean up contaminated groundwater on the city's west side. The system offers lessons for cleanup at Kirtland Air Force Base. (John Fleck/Albuquerque Journal)

City of Santa Fe water managers Bill Schneider, left, and Alex Puglisi explain a system built to clean up contaminated groundwater on the city’s west side. The system offers lessons for cleanup at Kirtland Air Force Base. (John Fleck/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Alex Puglisi and his Santa Fe water department colleagues have drawn attention in the past year to a nondescript cinder block building behind a locked fence on Santa Fe’s west side.

What goes on behind that fence raises a question: Could Santa Fe’s experience cleaning contaminated groundwater be a model for dealing with Albuquerque’s problems with a massive Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill?

The answer, according to Puglisi and other experts, is mixed.

When the Sangre de Cristo Water Co. found gasoline contamination in a well off Cerillos Road back in the 1980s, the then-private water company installed a carbon filter to clean the water, then pumped it into the municipal drinking water supply.

The city of Santa Fe bought out the water system in the 1990s, upgraded the treatment system, and continued to clean the water and serve it to the community’s homes and businesses. Today, the two-story building houses a Rube Goldberg-like network of pipes that pump the water through a three-stage treatment system. The first runs the water through a towering “air stripper” two stories high, with contamination bubbled out of the water into vapors that can be sucked off and disposed of safely. After that, the water flows through two massive carbon filled tanks, where any remaining contamination bonds to filter material.

The hazardous chemical ethylene dibromide – EDB – has been undetectable in the treated water. The lesson has drawn attention because EDB is the most worrisome threat from a Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill that is creeping slowly toward Albuquerque’s drinking water wells. No EDB has been detected in Albuquerque drinking water, and Air Force officials and state regulators have pledged cleanup measures to try to prevent that from happening.

But in the worst case scenario that Kirtland fuel reaches municipal wells, the Santa Fe experience shows that it can be safely cleaned up, according to University of New Mexico groundwater expert Bruce Thomson.

“The principle contaminant of concern at Kirtland Air Force Base is EDB,” Thomson said in an interview. The Santa Fe success “is an illustration that it can be managed safely and effectively.”

Initially, Santa Fe water customers were uneasy about having treated water in their homes, said Dennis McQuillan, who worked on the site for the New Mexico Environment Department’s Groundwater Protection Bureau. The expanded system in the late 1990s eventually won them over, he said.

But members of the team working on the Santa Fe site, some of whom also have worked on the Kirtland cleanup problem, caution not to take the comparison too far. The Kirtland contamination is much worse, with a far bigger spill and higher concentrations of EDB.

“I think Kirtland’s a different story,” said Puglisi, the environmental compliance officer for the city of Santa Fe’s water department.

Beyond the direct experience of cleaning up a contaminated drinking water well, the Santa Fe experience may also offer a second lesson for the Kirtland situation – the importance of attacking the heart of the contamination plume to prevent its spread. While the water being distributed to Santa Fe customers may be clean, Puglisi thinks much of the contamination at the Santa Fe site has simply bypassed the Santa Fe drinking water wells as it continues to migrate beneath a west side neighborhood. The threat is not gone, Puglisi said, a key lesson for those working on the Kirtland problem.

“We still have a plume that is moving off the site,” Puglisi said recently as he stood before the cinder block building that houses the Santa Fe cleanup system. At Kirtland, state and Air Force officials have pledged interim cleanup measures to halt the fuel’s spread, but no concrete steps have been taken to do that.

Dangerous pollutant

Ethylene dibromide, once a common ingredient in motor fuels and used as a fumigant and pesticide, has posed difficult environmental cleanup problems around the United States. Long-term consumption at extremely low levels can cause liver, stomach, reproductive system and kidney problems, and may cause an increased risk of cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA has set a safety standard of just 50 parts per trillion of EDB in drinking water, with a goal of zero.

A 2013 EPA study concluded that with enough time and money, cleaning EDB out of contaminated groundwater is possible. The study also suggests that, if Kirtland is anything like four similar major EDB contamination sites studied, the work is likely to take decades.

For example, the EPA has estimated that it will take another 45 to 50 years to clean up groundwater in the small town of Hastings, Neb., where EDB was used to kill pests in grain. Contamination is more concentrated in Hastings than at Kirtland, but the area of groundwater contamination is smaller.

Kirtland discovered in 1999 that an underground fuel line had been slowly leaking, likely for decades. Initial estimates of the size of the spill were small, but over the next decade officials realized that millions of gallons had leaked, contaminating groundwater 500 feet underground and spreading northeast, off the base and beneath southeast Albuquerque neighborhoods.

The Air Force recently estimated the spill size at 5.9 million gallons, while a New Mexico Environment Department scientist calculated that as much as 24 million gallons of fuel may have spilled. EDB, which was included in the fuel, has dissolved into the groundwater, and its chemistry allows it to move more quickly toward the drinking water wells. The risk, officials say, is that the spill could contaminate Albuquerque drinking water wells, with estimates of how soon that might happen ranging from five to 40 years.

It is that risk that has sent Albuquerque officials to Santa Fe to understand the worst-case scenario – what would happen if efforts to halt the Kirtland spill’s spread fail and EDB is detected at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s nearest well?

When that happened in Santa Fe, water utility officials built a carbon filtration system to clean the water, a common approach, according to the EPA. In Santa Fe, the three-step system has been a success – enough to ultimately satisfy a public that had been wary of having the treated water introduced back into Santa Fe’s drinking water system, Puglisi said.

But the Santa Fe well is far smaller than Albuquerque’s. The nearest Albuquerque drinking water well to the Kirtland spill pumps 5 million gallons of water per day. In Santa Fe, by comparison, the water treatment system need only treat 350,000 gallons per day of contaminated water.

“It’s a small well,” Puglisi said. That would mean a far larger treatment system in Albuquerque, or many treatment systems the size of Santa Fe’s scattered across southeast Albuquerque, Puglisi said.

Stopping the spread

Could the Santa Fe experience also provide lessons for efforts to halt the Kirtland spill’s spread before it reaches any drinking water wells?

Santa Fe officials say “yes.” Attacking the heart of the spill to reduce its spread is critical, officials responsible for the Santa Fe cleanup said. In the groundwater cleanup business, they call it “cutting off the head of the dragon,” said Bill Schneider, the city of Santa Fe’s water resources coordinator. You may never clean the water completely, but if you reduce the worst of the spill, you reduce the risk to drinking water supplies as it spreads, Schneider said.

Puglisi said that was never really done at the Santa Fe site. “We never really captured the head of the dragon, so it’s continuing to migrate,” Puglisi said.

At Kirtland, no direct cleanup of contaminated groundwater has yet been attempted nearly seven years after widespread groundwater contamination was discovered.

After a series of false starts, the New Mexico Environment Department and the Air Force said last August that they planned to start some sort of interim cleanup system by the end of June, the first direct attack on the “dragon’s head.”

Among the options being considered, according to Air Force officials and state regulators, is some sort of “pump and treat” system similar to what was done in Santa Fe. But instead of cleaning up drinking water contaminated with relatively low levels of EDB, it would attack the heart of the plume, and would therefore deal with higher levels of contamination.

One unanswered question – what would be done with the treated water? Among the options that have been discussed are re-injecting it into the aquifer or using it to water parks and landscaping, though coming up with a plan for dealing with treated water remains one of the most difficult parts of the problem to solve.

It is a process that has proven difficult at other EDB cleanup sites. In the agricultural spill site in Hastings, for example, difficulties in capturing the heart of the contamination plagued cleanup efforts for more than a decade. Efforts to pump water from the most contaminated part of the plume to slow its spread and clean it for industrial uses failed to halt the contamination’s spread, the EPA found. More wells had to be drilled farther from the worst of the spill to create a “secondary containment zone,” according to the 2013 EPA report.

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