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Editorial: Kirtland lawsuit 20 years, millions of gallons late

Suing the military-industrial complex over a leak that spewed millions of gallons of jet fuel into the ground seems like a pretty righteous cause at first blush.

But a closer look at the intent to sue recently announced by the SouthWest Organizing Project, New Mexico Voices for Children and three New Mexico Democrats actually smacks more of political posturing than any nobler motivation.

It may have been appropriate 20, 10 – maybe even five – years ago. But today? Not so much.

First, the history. When the leak at Kirtland Air Force Base was first discovered, we were panicking about Y2K and watching the Denver Broncos bask in the glow of a second-straight Super Bowl win. It was 1999. Two decades ago.

At the time, investigators didn’t know how long faulty pipes had been spilling jet fuel into the ground. It might have been decades. Despite signs that the leak posed serious public health and environmental threats, the Air Force and thus KAFB failed to marshal their forces and muster up a solution.

Frustration mounted as base leaders downplayed and delayed addressing the leak, year after year. By 2010, a Journal report cited an estimate that the volume was nearly 8 million gallons, “Exxon Valdez-scale numbers,” as a May 4 article put it, contaminating a massive area of ground water.

It was 2015 by the time the Air Force installed a pump-and-treat system to keep contamination from spreading to drinking wells. The Air Force wins no prizes for speed here. But now it’s 2019. Wells have been monitoring contaminants, and four extraction pumps have pulled out hundreds of millions of gallons of water to be purified. They can only extract so fast or they risk pulling other contaminants farther off base.

Yet it’s only now that two advocacy groups, state Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Mimi Stewart and state Rep. G. Andres Romero want to join neighbors in a lawsuit? According to an article in the Saturday Journal, New Mexico Environmental Law Center staff attorney Charles De Saillan complained there was no “enforceable cleanup plan with meaningful schedules or deadlines.”

That critique no longer holds true.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland – who represents the area affected by contamination but is not a party to the case – said she would like to see more transparency. Fine, and she’s the perfect person to demand more information from Kirtland leadership, as did her predecessors, including now-Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But the Air Force is finally well into cleanup efforts. It’s hard to see what could possibly be gained from a lawsuit at this point – apart from billable hours for lawyers, and, of course, always redeemable political points.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.