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Chemicals Found in Albuquerque Groundwater

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Crews working on an old Air Force fuel spill have stumbled on what could become a new Superfund hazardous waste site beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood.

The potentially cancer-causing chemicals, which officials say most likely came from an old neighborhood dry cleaner, showed up in groundwater less than 2,000 feet from a major Albuquerque drinking water well.

Crews working for the Air Force found the contamination in water about 500 feet underground when they were installing test wells in the neighborhood of Louisiana and Southern SE, near Phil Chacon Park.

The threat is to groundwater, not to people living in the neighborhood above the contamination, said Jim Davis, head of the state Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division.


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Officials said Friday they are only beginning to assess the seriousness of the situation, but they said the chemical’s discovery could trigger action under the federal Superfund law, a program aimed at the nation’s most serious hazardous chemical contamination problems.

The chemical, perchloroethylene or PCE, appears to be unrelated to the nearby Air Force fuel spill problem, Davis said. None of the many test wells drilled to monitor the Air Force fuel spill have found PCE, suggesting another source for the chemical.

“This chemical comes from dry cleaners,” Davis said in an interview.

But its discovery could significantly complicate the already difficult problem of cleaning up the nearby decades-old Air Force fuel spill, said Bruce Thomson, a University of New Mexico engineering professor and groundwater contamination expert. The Air Force, state regulators and the local water utility are already grappling with the spill of millions of gallons of aviation fuel, which was already believed to be spreading toward Albuquerque drinking water wells. The discovery of PCE nearby, even closer to the drinking water wells, is “going to make life complicated,” Thomson said in an interview. “This is a big deal.”

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is evaluating the situation and has not yet seen any signs of PCE during routine tests in the nearby Ridgecrest drinking water well field. It is between 1,700 and 2,000 feet from the nearest PCE-contaminated groundwater, according to Rick Shean, the utility’s water quality hydrologist.

Crews working for the Air Force found the PCE when they were installing test wells in the neighborhood of Louisiana and Southern SE. They were trying to determine how far contamination from the longstanding Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill had spread. According to Davis, when they pumped up some water to test the wells, initial sample analysis found PCE at levels above the federally established safe drinking water level.

Davis said the state Environment Department plans to start an aggressive investigation next week to scour the neighborhood looking for possible sources of contamination. More detailed testing of the wells will also be needed to clarify the extent and seriousness of the contamination, Davis said. One preliminary sample suggested concentrations of PCE in the water more than 15 times the safe drinking water limit, according to Davis. While that sounds high, Davis noted that there are more than a dozen known PCE contamination sites around the state, many of them with far higher levels than those initially found in the southeast Albuquerque wells.

“We are determined to confirm the source of this PCE,” state Environment Secretary David Martin said in a statement, “and work with the city of Albuquerque, the EPA and the neighborhood to clean this up.”

Thomson called the discovery “serendipitous.” If not for the drilling to try to track the Kirtland contamination, the PCE might not have been discovered until it showed up in Albuquerque’s drinking water, he said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal