Kirtland Air Force Base’s plans to clean up a massive fuel leak would make the problem worse, spreading contamination to Albuquerque groundwater that is currently clean, the New Mexico Environment Department has concluded.
“The proposed strategy would actively enhance the spread of contamination into the very resource NMED seeks to protect, Albuquerque’s drinking water supply,” Environment Department official Tom Blaine wrote in a June 6 letter.
In April, Kirtland floated a proposal to increase pumping on one of the base’s drinking water wells to try to divert the underground flow of contamination. The idea was to pull fuel-contaminated groundwater away from a danger zone where it threatens municipal drinking water wells beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood.
Once the contamination reaches the well on base, the Air Force would pump it up and run it through a treatment system to clean it to meet drinking water standards before pumping it into the base’s water supply system, according to an April 8 Air Force memo explaining the plan.
Even if the move might relieve some of the risk to municipal wells, which is questionable, Blaine wrote, it would do so at the expense of contaminating an area that is now clean.
The Air Force discovered in 1999 that an underground fuel line had been leaking, likely for decades. Estimates of the size of the spill range from 6 million to 24 million gallons of aviation fuel over the years, but to date none of the contaminated groundwater has been cleaned up beyond a brief experiment conducted on a single groundwater well last December.
The letter shows growing tension between the Air Force and state regulators over the cleanup progress.
According to Blaine’s letter, the Environment Department told Air Force officials on May 7 that their plan to pump and treat water from a well on base was unacceptable. Three weeks later, according to Blaine’s letter, Environment Department officials found the Air Force was proceeding with it anyway.
A Kirtland spokesman declined comment Monday, saying the Air Force was still reviewing Blaine’s letter. But in an opinion piece published in the Journal on Sunday, Air Force official Ian Smith said, “The Air Force and Kirtland … are committed to a complete clean-up of the fuel leak site.”
The NMED letter comes as political leaders are putting increasing pressure on the Air Force regarding the problem.
Last week, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., requested that the Air Force commission an independent review of Kirtland’s problems by the National Academy of Sciences. But in a joint release, the trio also praised Air Force commitments to meet state-mandated cleanup milestones.
The entire purpose of the next cleanup measures being mandated by the state is to halt the spread of the spilled fuel, Blaine wrote, not to spread it further to an uncontaminated area.
Last August, Air Force and Environment Department officials pledged to have some sort of cleanup system in place by the end of this year to halt the spread of ethylene dibromide, the most dangerous of the chemicals now moving from Kirtland beneath southeast Albuquerque toward Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority wells, which provide drinking water for a wide swath of southeast Albuquerque.
Estimates of the time it will take the hazardous chemicals to reach the nearest water supply well range from five to 40 years.
Blaine’s comments echo a technical evaluation done by groundwater scientist John Sigda of the consulting firm INTERA for the Water Authority. Sigda found the proposed pumping “would spread, not contain” the spilled fuel.
Sigda argued that the Air Force plan is doomed to failure because the Air Force’s proposed pump-and-treat well is so much smaller than the big supply wells run by the water utility. The Air Force hopes to divert the flow of contamination by pumping 500 gallons of water per minute. But the water utility wells already pump “many thousands” of gallons per minute, suggesting the Air Force proposal is too small to divert the main flow of contamination.
And even if it works, Sigda concluded, the Air Force plan would take “decades” for it to begin removing contamination from the groundwater.