Federal officials are expanding the network of groundwater monitoring wells to get a better idea of the extend of contamination from a decades-old Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill threatening Albuquerque’s drinking water supply.
The U.S. Geological Survey, with funding from the Air Force, is drilling three new wells between the known area of contamination and the nearest Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority drinking water wells, to serve as “sentries” to detect any contamination nearing the municipal water supply, agency water quality hydrologist Rick Shean told the agency’s board of directors Wednesday evening.
The wells will also gather data to improve scientists’ understanding of how soon contamination might reach the wells if nothing is done to slow its flow, according to Shean. Estimates of how long that might take range from a five to 40 years.
The new wells have been a long time coming. The water utility’s board of directors first requested them in 2012, Shean told the board.
Also Wednesday, the New Mexico Environment Department approved an Air Force plan to drill an additional 16 monitoring wells to better understand how far underground the most dangerous contaminant, ethylene dibromide or EDB, has traveled.
“We need to identify how deep the EDB is,” said Tom Blaine, who is heading up the cleanup oversight for the Environment Department.
Kirtland officials discovered in 1999 that an underground pipe at the base’s aircraft fuel loading facility had a leak. Analysis done in the years since found that 6 million to 24 million gallons had leaked over a period of decades, contaminating groundwater and spreading toward Albuquerque’s drinking water wells.
Adrian Bodour, who is heading cleanup work for the Air Force, said the new monitoring wells are an effort to fill in data gaps that remain in the cleanup team’s understanding of how far the contamination has traveled. It will help provide data to begin, for the first time, cleaning EDB out of the water, according to Bodour.
“It’s good to see that they’re acknowledging the data gaps,” said Dave McCoy of the activist group Citizen Action, who has long complained about holes in the government agencies’ understanding of the extent of contamination. But McCoy said he remains concerned that the new wells are not yet sufficient because of what he believes are problems in how the data is being collected.