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Kirtland pressured for better response to contaminated groundwater

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A trio of local elected officials on Monday criticized the Air Force’s latest proposal to slow the spread of contamination into Albuquerque’s drinking water from a Kirtland Air Force Base fuel leak, calling it inadequate.

Some 15 years after the multi-million gallon leak was discovered, the Air Force has yet to begin removing contamination from groundwater or take steps to halt its spread, complained Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño.

“For all the time that we’ve talked about this, there has not been a single gallon of fuel removed” from Albuquerque groundwater, Garduño told reporters at a Monday morning news conference.

The news conference, held with Bernalillo County Commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley, reflects an effort by local officials to step up the pressure on the Air Force. The three elected officials also serve on the Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Utility Authority’s board of directors.

The three joined state officials in criticizing the Air Force’s proposal, saying it would likely fail to halt the fuel’s spread, while at the same time pulling it into an area where the water is currently clean, making the problem worse rather than better.

“They would contaminate water that’s not now contaminated,” Garduño said.

With final cleanup still years away, the current debate is over interim measures promised by the Air Force to slow the contamination’s spread. The elected officials said the Air Force is not being aggressive enough. “There doesn’t seem to be the urgency that we need to have,” O’Malley said.

A threat to a major part of Albuquerque’s water supply ultimately poses a threat to the entire community’s economy, Hart Stebbins added. “We’re not going to have any jobs if we don’t take care of this problem,” she said.

Col. Jeff Lanning, who oversees Kirtland’s environmental efforts, said the Air Force is pushing forward on cleanup as quickly as it can, but that progress is frequently slowed by state and federal regulatory requirements. The Air Force remains committed to preventing contamination of Albuquerque’s drinking water, Lanning said in an interview Monday.

Kirtland officials discovered in 1999 that an underground pipe was leaking aircraft fuel, and likely had been for decades. Subsequent estimates have put the size of the leak at between 6 million and 24 million gallons. Groundwater beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood a mile from the site of the initial leak is contaminated. The mess is spreading northeast toward the water utility’s nearest well. Ethylene dibromide, a possible cancer-causing chemical once used as a fuel additive, has been detected about two-thirds of a mile from the nearest drinking water well. Government scientists have estimated that it could take anywhere from five to 40 years for contamination to reach the well.

The Albuquerque officials were responding to the latest Air Force cleanup proposal, which water agency officials say is inadequate given the scale of the problem.

In an effort to meet a New Mexico Environment Department-mandated milestone to take action this year to halt the spread of ethylene dibromide, Kirtland officials in an April memo to the department suggested pumping a water well on base property in an effort to divert the water away from Albuquerque’s drinking water wells.

Kirtland’s Lanning said the criticism of the Air Force proposal is premature. He said the idea of pumping a Kirtland drinking water well to divert the contamination plume is still under development and is only one of “several” ideas being considered as an interim measure to slow the spread of ethylene dibromide.

Lanning refused to describe the other methods being considered. “We’re not going to put those out there to be critiqued by the water utility authority now,” Lanning said.

At the news conference, water utility officials urged the Air Force to consider a proposal developed by the utility’s staff and consultants to drill a picket line of seven wells between the heart of the contamination and the water utility’s threatened wells. Contaminated water would be pumped up and piped to a treatment plant on the Air Force base.

Rather than trying to divert the contamination in a different direction, as the Air Force proposal would do, the water utility’s approach would simply block the contaminants’ progress – “grab that dirty water and remove it,” John Sigda of INTERA Inc., a consulting firm advising the water utility, told reporters Monday.

Lanning said the water utility’s proposed picket line of defensive wells might be worth considering. But it could not be implemented in time to meet the state’s Dec. 31 deadline for having containment measures in place because of the need to acquire the necessary property to install wells and water lines to handle the contaminated water.

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