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Cleaning up groundwater contamination is slow, complicated and expensive.
And specific remediation at three military sites in New Mexico is also hindered by state budget constraints and limited staff, state Environment Department officials told lawmakers during a virtual briefing last week.
The agency’s Hazardous Waste Bureau is “operating on a shoestring,” with 10 of the bureau’s 35 positions still vacant, said Stephanie Stringer, director of the Resource Protection Division at the New Mexico Environment Department.
NMED estimates the agency needs a $10 million budget increase to be fully functional.
Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, noted during the meeting that slow cleanup is the result of years of New Mexico underfunding its environmental and natural resource agencies.
“It actually costs us more not to be able to figure out solutions to many of these issues, rather than just investing in these issues,” Rubio said during the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials committee meeting.
Cleanup of the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill has been “stuck” in the facility investigation phase for years, Stringer said.
“It’s a lot of scientific data collection and analysis to determine the nature and the extent of the contamination, while also concurrently exploring ideas and pilot tests about how the contamination can be addressed,” she said.
Kirtland first discovered a pipeline leaking jet fuel into groundwater in 1999. The leak, which occurred over decades, contained ethylene dibromide (EDB).
The Air Force uses extraction wells to pump and treat the plume. Since 2015, cleanup has focused on the area north of Ridgecrest Drive.
The wells had treated more than 808 million gallons of water as of February. The strategy has reduced the EDB plume by 91%.
Kirtland has, however, yet to submit a final cleanup strategy to the state. NMED wants to start selecting a permanent remedy by the end of 2021.
Limited resources also have slowed cleanup of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in groundwater at Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency links the PFAS chemicals, used in firefighting foam on base, to low birth weights, high cholesterol and some cancers.
Contamination forced a Clovis dairy to stop selling milk and euthanize its cows.
“We’re not even anywhere near getting into figuring out how to truly clean up PFAS contamination, as we have to first figure out where it is,” Stringer said.
The “responsible party,” in this case the Air Force, has not gathered or shared enough data about PFAS at the sites, so the state is stepping in, she said.
NMED received $1 million from the state Legislature this year to assess the contamination.
The Environment Department last week reached a settlement with the Air Force for not including PFAS chemicals in a Cannon groundwater discharge permit.
But the $250,000 settlement is for a permit violation and does not include a cleanup mandate.
New Mexico has sued the Department of Defense over the groundwater contamination.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.