Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Two organizations, three legislators and three individuals are threatening to sue the Air Force and the Department of Defense over the cleanup of jet fuel contamination at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The SouthWest Organizing Project, New Mexico Voices for Children, state Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Mimi Stewart, state Rep. G. Andres Romero and three residents of the impacted area on Friday sent a notice of intent to sue to the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense, asserting the Air Force has created an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment” resulting from the bulk fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The notice was sent under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal law that regulates hazardous wastes and requires the cleanup of hazardous chemical constituents.
“It is disappointing to see Kirtland Air Force Base fail to work with state regulators, environmental organizations and the public to ensure that our drinking water is safe,” Sedillo Lopez said in a news release. “I urge the leadership to take our concerns very seriously.”
Charles de Saillan, staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, claimed there wasn’t an “enforceable cleanup plan with meaningful schedules or deadlines.
“We want to see the Air Force proceed under a consent decree or other court order or enforceable agreement that establishes a schedule with clear deadlines. If the deadlines are missed without good reason, penalties should accrue,” he said.
Kirtland Air Force Base spokeswoman Eva Blaylock said base officials would not comment on the intent to sue. She said the Department of Justice leads the work on all federal notices of intent filed in federal court.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Mark Correll told the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority in April the Air Force remained committed “to make sure no one in this city or on Kirtland Air Force Base will drink water that is EDB (ethylene dibromide) contaminated.”
He said, however, efforts to rid the groundwater of jet fuel contamination at Kirtland Air Force Base would continue for years to come.
The leak was discovered in 1999 after jet fuel was found on the surface near a base fueling facility. It was eventually found that holes had worn in underground pipes used to carry jet fuel from delivery tankers to storage tanks and that millions of gallons had been slowly leaking, undetected, for decades.
Correll said the pump-and-treat system put into place north of Ridgecrest Drive has stopped and started to collapse the 7,000-foot plume caused by the contamination. He said 86% of the mass of EDB has been removed from the target area north of Ridgecrest. He said other corrective measures would be determined in the Corrective Measures Evaluation, which he hoped would start next year.
Environment Secretary James Kenney said in his department’s draft of a strategic plan addressing the cleanup that the Air Force has made strides in cleaning up the fuel spill but that the work is far from complete. Under the draft plan, work would continue along with more modeling and monitoring. The state also is requiring the Air Force to submit more data related to the soil vapor contamination.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who represents the area affected by the contamination, said she was not aware of the intent to sue. But she has questioned former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson about the cleanup and said she has heard from several residents concerned about the contamination.
“It’s an ongoing issue that so many people are very concerned about,” Haaland said. “So many of us are working diligently to make sure this issue is addressed. Community leaders don’t feel they are getting honest reporting from the folks who are doing the cleanup. I think there needs to be a lot more transparency, and we’ve been working on that.”
De Saillan agreed there needed to be “more opportunity for public involvement in the cleanup process.”
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is one of the federal environmental laws that allow individuals and organizations to sue parties responsible for pollution, including the federal government, in order to get relief.
“Laws exist in the U.S. for people to take action when they feel that the government is failing to protect human health and resources,” says Douglas Meiklejohn, New Mexico Environmental Law Center Executive Director.
The Air Force and Department of Defense have 90 days to respond to the notice, after which the community members may start legal action against the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or both, seeking injunctive relief – an order from the court for cleanup of the plume and its toxic chemicals.
As of April, Correll said the Air Force had spent $125 million toward the cleanup, He said funding was not an issue with the project. Correll said 615 million gallons of groundwater had been treated so far, and he said more than 4,800 tons of soil had been removed from the source area.