Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The drinking water is safe. The pump-and-treat system will continue. And an additional $90 million will be spent to clean up the contamination from jet fuel spills at Kirtland Air Force Base.
That was the U.S. Air Force’s response to the Journal about a letter the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority sent to Assistant Air Force Secretary John Henderson in late June voicing concerns about the cleanup, including an “apparent slowdown of the progress” at the site.
Bernalillo County Commission Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins said the letter was not an attack on the Air Force, and she commended the military branch for work already done to rid the base and the surrounding area of ethylene dibromide (EDB) contamination caused by decades of jet fuel spills on the base.
“We support the Air Force and the New Mexico Environment Department,” said Hart Stebbins, who is a member of the water authority board and a signer of the letter along with fellow County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, who is the board’s chair.
But the board is concerned about the timeline of the project, especially with contaminated areas currently going untreated. It’s also concerned about changes in the Air Force’s strategic plan with the state Environment Department without explanation and a reduction in the amount of funding for the project from $2.5 million in fiscal 2018 to $1.3 million in 2019.
Hart Stebbins said she wonders about the drop in funding with activities on the strategic plan slated for the project this year. The Air Force, which has spent $125 million on the project so far, backs up a statement by Deputy Air Force Secretary Mark Correll at a water authority meeting on April 17 that there are no funding issues with the project.
“In some years, such as when we are drilling and commissioning new wells, the amount needed will be higher. In other years, such as when we are purely operating systems, the amount needed will be lower,” the letter to the Journal from Henderson’s office said.
The board’s letter expressed a concern that interim measures such as the pump-and-treat system for the plume north of Ridgecrest Drive would be discontinued before permanent measures are in place following the corrective measures evaluation phase.
But the Air Force told the Journal it would not discontinue operation of the system without NMED approval and “would continue to operate this pump and treat system until the final remedy or remedies are in place, or cleanup standards in the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) Permit are achieved.” The Air Force said it would continue to monitor the system and make changes when needed.
“This interim measure has been very successful,” the Air Force said. “As of June 30, 2019, approximately 668 million gallons of groundwater have passed through the pump and treat system, with over 86% of the mass of EDB in the plume north of Ridgecrest Drive (approximately 118 grams) reduced. While this may appear to be a very small amount of EDB, it reflects the low concentrations in the plume.”
Hart Stebbins said the board doesn’t dispute the success of the pump-and-treat system, but it would like additional verification that 86% of the mass of EDB has been removed from the target area. She and the water authority’s environmental manager, Diane Agnew, said the pumping system has not been operating as modeled. They said one of the pumps was out of operation for a period between six months and a year.
They also said data from the cleanup has not been made readily available to the authority as in previous years. Agnew said she now receives data at the end of the year.
Hart Stebbins also wants to know why the Air Force is only treating the target area north of Ridgecrest Drive. She wonders if the pump-and-treat method would also work for the other areas, including an area south of Ridgecrest Drive where a significant portion of the groundwater plume lies.
The Air Force said it is still evaluating the sources of EDB and other fuel-leak related contaminants south of Ridgecrest Drive. This evaluation focuses on the implementation of pilot treatment tests, the collection and analysis of soil cores and a limited number of additional data-gap wells.
Analysis of the soil cores is key to coming up with a remedy, the Air Force said. The results will be included in a report to NMED in November.
But a remedy for the area isn’t planned until after the corrective measures evaluation is complete. It’s the board’s understanding that it will not begin until 2023.
But the Air Force told the Journal the evaluation phase could begin in late 2021, pending NMED approval of an investigative report with an estimated approval of the evaluation in late 2022.
The Air Force said it is interested in working with NMED to shorten the timeline.
Hart Stebbins said the water authority for years was included in the cleanup effort, including providing resources to the Air Force and NMED as they worked on interim measures to address the cleanup.
She said the Air Force has been less transparent about the cleanup in the last couple of years, which she said added to mistrust among some people in the community.
The Air Force said it has 24 sentinel wells between the groundwater plume and drinking water wells monitoring any threat to the water supply. It said wells are monitored quarterly, with Kirtland Air Force Base, VA hospital wells and city of Albuquerque wells monitored monthly.
“All continue to show no detectable EDB,” the Air Force said.