ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Kirtland Air Force Base crew is in the final stages of testing a new machine it hopes will accelerate cleanup of a fuel spill that has contaminated southeast Albuquerque groundwater.
On a concrete pad just north of the base flight line, workers Thursday were testing a garden-shed-sized furnace officials say will begin within the next week to burn off jet fuel sucked from deep under ground.
“It’s the next step in actually cleaning up the contaminants,” said Col. John Kubinec, the base commander.
Officials note that this is not the final remedy for the longstanding problem, but rather an interim measure to remove some fuel from the ground while the Air Force and state regulators wrestle with the long-term problem of cleaning up the decades-old mess.
“We wanted to get after this contamination sooner rather than later,” said John Kieling, head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau.
Contractors for the Air Force sank two wells six inches in diameter more than 500 feet into the ground adjacent to the base’s old fuel loading area, where in 1999 the Air Force discovered that an underground pipe had been leaking for decades.
Vacuum units will suck fuel vapors from the layers of soil above the groundwater, and the furnace unit will then burn it off, explained Brent Wilson, Kirtland’s civil engineer.
The fuel has moved through groundwater more than a mile from the spill site. None has been detected in Albuquerque drinking water wells. Test wells near Phil Chacon Park, between the nearest drinking water wells and the known fuel spill area, recently came back clean, suggesting the risk to drinking water is not imminent, according to the state Environment Department.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is in the midst of developing a network of early warning monitoring wells between the fuel spill and the nearest drinking water wells. The water utility is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to determine the best place to put the wells. The agency will pay for the wells but under an agreement with the Air Force, there is a possibility that the Air Force will reimburse the utility for the work, according to John Stomp, the utility’s chief operating officer.
Smaller “soil vapor extraction” units have been at work for years sucking aircraft fuel vapors from the ground, but the new larger system is designed to work more effectively at removing the fuel from the ground, Wilson said.
The cleanup efforts face challenges that officials at the Air Force and the state acknowledge cannot be solved with the systems currently in place. The biggest near-term issue is the fact that the water table in the area has been rising as a result of decreased drinking water pumping from nearby wells run by the water utility.
That rising water table has submerged a layer of jet fuel that had been resting in soil on top of the water table, making cleanup harder. In a December report to the Environment Department, the Air Force acknowledged that fuel layer, now trapped under water, “will be an ongoing source of dissolved groundwater contamination indefinitely.”
The Air Force and Environment Department are in talks about implementing the next cleanup step, which would begin removing some of that fuel submerged in the groundwater layer.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal