Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that addressing the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill should be the New Mexico congressional delegation’s “No. 1 priority.”
Responding to business leaders at the Albuquerque Economic Forum, Lujan Grisham said improved independent oversight of the Air Force’s cleanup effort is needed. That could help show the decades-old plume of jet fuel leaked beneath Kirtland is being properly handled, she said.
“I’m now thinking that it needs to be the No. 1 priority of the delegation,” Lujan Grisham said. “We talk about jobs, jobs, jobs. We’re not going to have any jobs in New Mexico if New Mexico’s not a safe place and we don’t have a protected … safe drinking water system.”
The spill was discovered in 1999, when Kirtland officials found that an underground jet fuel pipeline had been leaking for decades and had potentially lost millions of gallons. Test wells have shown that groundwater contamination beneath Kirtland has spread to surrounding areas and is approaching public drinking water supplies.
Currently, the Air Force cleanup plan is regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department. Also weighing in on the cleanup is the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and a Kirtland-sponsored citizens advisory board.
“They’re doing their work in a vacuum, and it’s not clear to us whether that work is sufficient to protect us,” the first-term congresswoman said.
New Mexico Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester said the state agency has made an effort to communicate progress on the cleanup effort with members of Congress but welcomes increased interest in the issue.
“NMED greatly appreciates any effort and support by the congressional delegation to make the cleanup one of their priorities,” Winchester said in a prepared statement. “The Kirtland spill cleanup is the top priority of the New Mexico Environment Department.”
Lujan Grisham said the Air Force has been responsive to her requests for information on the issue, but residents have expressed reasonable skepticism about data coming from the established oversight system.
An Air Force spokesman at Kirtland did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
To address those concerns, Lujan Grisham on Wednesday proposed a new independent and “substantive” citizens group that would have more say in the work being done to protect the city’s drinking water supplies.
New Mexico needs “to get this resolved in a way that people have confidence in the process, because if we do it together then you don’t get this group (saying ), ‘Kirtland is perfect,’ and the environmentalists saying, ‘Kirtland’s not telling us the truth,’ and people in the middle who aren’t sure,” she said.
But Lujan Grisham said the cleanup project shouldn’t become a federal Superfund site, because that approach would take oversight out of the hands of local authorities.
Jennifer Talhelm, spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the senator agrees the issue should be a focus, noting that Udall played a key role in getting the Air Force to commit to the agreed cleanup plan.
“He’ll continue to push to keep the Air Force accountable,” Talhelm said.