ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Preliminary test results suggest the Air Force may finally have found the edge of a plume of contaminated groundwater spreading outward from an old Kirtland Air Force Base spill.
Water drawn from new wells beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood, midway between the jet fuel contamination and the nearest municipal drinking water wells, appears to be clean of jet fuel contamination, according to Jim Davis, head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division.
Davis, speaking Wednesday to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, said the new test results mean the current risk to drinking water is small.
The Environment Department believes, based on the preliminary test data, that “the probability the wells will be affected by this contamination plume is relatively small,” Davis said.
Officials are awaiting confirmation of the results, but if they hold up, it would suggest the Air Force and Environment Department are zeroing in on the edge of the fuel plume. Air Force spokeswoman Marie Vanover issued a statement calling the results “encouraging”.
Vanover said the Air Force is awaiting quality control tests of the samples to ensure the results are accurate. The Environment Department also took its own samples from the wells as an independent test, and they showed no signs of contamination, Davis said.
“This is really good news,” said University of New Mexico professor Bruce Thomson, a groundwater contamination expert.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, worried about threats to the government agency’s drinking water wells, took a more cautious approach to the results.
While it is good news that the initial sampling results show no contamination, the Water Utility wants to see more sampling in future months before it will be convinced that the area’s water is clean, said John Stomp, the utility’s chief operating officer.
“We’re happy that the first sampling looks clean,” Stomp said Friday, “but I think we need to have more sampling events.”
The Air Force discovered fuel leaking from an underground pipe in 1999. The leaking pipe was shut down and an investigation launched. After initially saying they believed the leak was small and confined to soil around the site, Air Force officials discovered in 2007 that the fuel had reached the aquifer, 500 feet below the ground. An Environment Department scientist earlier this year estimated that as much as 24 million gallons spilled over the years.
Once reaching groundwater, the fuel apparently began spreading to the northeast, in the direction of drinking water wells that supply neighborhoods across southeast Albuquerque.
Drinking water has tested negative for contamination, but the key open questions have been how fast the fuel might be traveling and how close it has gotten to municipal drinking water wells. If the new test results hold up, it means the fuel is likely decades away from contaminating Albuquerque drinking water, with a buffer of more than half a mile between the jet fuel contamination and the nearest drinking water well, Thomson said in an interview this week.
That would provide time for cleanup efforts, Thomson said. The Air Force is in the midst of installing a large new pump system that will suck fuel out of the ground. That system is due to begin operation by the end of the year.
The Water Utility has been pressing the Air Force on the issue because of the risk to the Albuquerque water supply. A resolution approved by the Utility’s board Wednesday called for the Air Force to speed up the cleanup effort.
Since discovery that the fuel had reached the groundwater, efforts have focused on drilling wells — 116 to date — to determine how far the fuel had spread. A small-scale cleanup effort is also under way, pumping fuel from the ground, and a larger pumping system is scheduled to come on line before the end of the year.
The three new well sites are in the vicinity of Louisiana and Southern SE near Phil Chacon Park. The Air Force drilled them under pressure from state regulators after the state in April called the Air Force’s efforts to determine the fuel plume’s extent inadequate.
The Water Utility will go ahead with plans to install additional monitoring wells between the known contamination and its drinking water wells, Stomp said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal