Air Force officials this week backed away from including a proposal that Albuquerque’s water utility simply dilute contaminated water and deliver it to customers as one of the options if toxic chemicals from a massive Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill ever reach municipal drinking water wells.
The dilution proposal, one of several water supply replacement options suggested for a worst-case scenario, had angered Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority officials and some in the community, who called any plan to serve water known to contain any contamination unacceptable.
The most serious contaminant, ethylene dibromide, or EDB, has been linked to liver disease and other problems.
Air Force and water utility officials say they expect cleanup steps now under study will render contingency plans unnecessary. “We are committed to aggressive treatment of the plume and are extremely confident we will be able to halt or shrink its migration,” Air Force spokesman Chad Starr said.
Critics have been skeptical, noting that 15 years after the leak was discovered, no contamination has been removed from the groundwater beyond a small experiment conducted last December.
The suggestion of diluting well water as one option had stalled preparation of a contingency plan the Air Force and the water utility are supposed to be jointly developing.
“I do not see the public, the water users, accepting any level of EDB in their drinking water,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, who serves on the public water utility’s governing board.
In response to questions from the Journal , Starr said in a statement Wednesday that dilution was “evaluated but not considered technically desirable.”
Water utility spokesman David Morris said Wednesday that agency officials, who have been in talks with Air Force officials in recent days, had no comment on the Air Force’s apparent change of heart because they had seen nothing in writing.
The Air Force and the water utility in 2012 signed a formal agreement to develop a “contingency plan” that would lay out in detail what would happen if contamination ever reached the utility’s nearest drinking water well.
Millions of gallons of fuel leaked undetected from an underground fuel line for decades. By the time it was discovered and investigations got underway, it had spread more than a mile from the spill site and is now less than a mile from the nearest water utility well. Two recent studies concluded it could reach the nearest well in 30 years, though independent experts cautioned that it could be moving more quickly.
Long-term consumption of EDB, even at extremely small concentrations, has been linked to liver, stomach, reproductive system and kidney problems and may cause an increased risk of cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA has set a safety standard of just 50 parts per trillion of EDB in drinking water, with a goal of zero.
According to Starr, the top two alternatives in the contingency plan are to drill a replacement water supply well elsewhere or purchase new river water supplies to replace water lost to contamination. Water utility officials note that there is precedent for that approach at other Albuquerque groundwater contamination sites.
The Air Force also believes filtering water from a contaminated well and delivering it to Albuquerque homes and businesses should be considered as a backup plan. There is precedent for such pump-and-treat systems, including a prominent site with similar contamination that is filtered before the water is distributed to homes and businesses in Santa Fe.
Water utility officials object to the pump-and-treat contingency option because they fear customers will not accept formerly contaminated water, said John Stomp, the water utility’s chief operating officer.