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Groups sue Air Force over Kirtland cleanup

A well monitors the Kirtland Air Force jet fuel contamination on Arizona SE between Ross and Eastern SE in Albuquerque in 2015. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Air Force insists it isn’t taking any shortcuts and is making progress in the cleanup of contamination caused by the decades-old jet fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base.

But groups, legislators and residents in the community don’t believe the Air Force is doing enough and that the cleanup is taking too long.

New Mexico Voices for Children, the Southwest Organizing Project, state Sen. Mimi Stewart, state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, state Rep. G. Andrés Romero, and three residents of the impacted area filed a Complaint for Injunctive Relief in federal court Monday against the Air Force and the Department of Defense.

The Air Force discovered the leak, which occurred over decades, in an aviation fuel pipeline at Kirtland Air Force Base in 1999 and reported the leak to the state Environment Department. The fuel, which contained ethylene dibromide, had seeped into groundwater and a plume of EDB had spread off-base to the north, threatening public drinking water supplies.

The complaint alleges that the Air Force has failed to adequately respond to the leak of gasoline and jet fuel from the Bulk Fuels Facility. The lawsuit claims the fuel presents an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment” due to the high levels of benzene and ethylene dibromide – both human carcinogens – as well as other contaminants in soil and groundwater.

“We are taking this action because the federal government has failed to develop and implement adequate solutions to this problem,” Stewart said in a release. “The response to this spill has moved far too slowly for far too long. Environmental cleanups at other sites in New Mexico are subject to rigorous, enforceable requirements. Let’s use those requirements for the Kirtland plume, instead of taking another 20 years to study the issue.”

At a public hearing last fall, Kate Lynnes, senior adviser for the bulk fuels facility cleanup, said she understood the community’s frustration at the pace of the cleanup. But she said the military branch didn’t “want to do too little.” She said the Air Force was going to look at all the data it could before planning a permanent remedy, and even that had to go through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permitting process, which gives the New Mexico Environment Department the final say.

As of Tuesday, the Air Force said it had treated more than 808 million gallons of water that had been contaminated by the jet fuel spill. It currently has four extraction wells and one injection well in operation as an interim measure trying to rid an area north of Ridgecrest Road of a groundwater EDB plume. There are 162 monitoring wells used in evaluating the plume, the Air Force said. The Air Force said 91% of the EDB mass in the area has been removed by the pump-and-treat system, which has been in operation since 2015 to keep the EDB plume from reaching municipal drinking water wells.

The area south of Ridgecrest contains other contaminants, such as benzene, in addition to EDB. But the fuel constituents in the area have not been found to be mobile or expanding like the EDB. The Air Force has conducted a soil-vapor extraction and used a method called “bioslurping” to address the contamination south of Ridgecrest. It is also running a pilot test in an effort for more rapid degradation of the fuel contaminants.

“We want the Air Force to fully characterize the plume of contamination, which it has not yet done,” said Charles de Saillan, staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs. “We want the Air Force to propose a plan for cleanup of the main plume of the contamination and to implement that plan. The main plume has not yet been addressed, and it will continue to be a source of groundwater contamination until it is cleaned up. Perhaps most importantly, we want the Air Force on an enforceable schedule for completing the investigation and cleanup of the soil and groundwater contamination at and around Kirtland Air Force Base.”

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