The Air Force is taking too long to start cleaning groundwater contaminated by an old Kirtland Air Force Base aircraft fuel spill and risks fines of at least $10,000 per day if it misses a June 30 milestone, state regulators told the service last week.
In a public meeting last August, the New Mexico Environment Department and the Air Force committed to have an interim cleanup system running by the end of June. In an April 24 letter, provided by the state in response to a Journal public records request, the Environment Department complained that the Air Force’s current plan, a passive approach using bacteria to break down the fuel, could miss that milestone by as much as a year.
Rather than waiting that long, the Environment Department directed the Air Force to install a cleanup system by June 30 that would immediately begin removing contamination from groundwater beneath the base.
A Kirtland spokesman declined comment on the letter, saying Air Force officials are still reviewing it.
“Kirtland Air Force Base, with the assistance of our regulators, is committed to ensuring that the drinking water our Albuquerque neighbors enjoy continues to remain safe,” base spokesman Carl Grusnick said in an emailed statement.
Discovered in 1999, the spill came from an underground fuel line that had likely been leaking undetected for decades. Estimates of the amount of fuel leaked range from 6 million to 24 million gallons, and contamination has been detected in groundwater beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood a mile from the site of the initial leak.
No contamination has been detected in municipal drinking water. State and independent experts have estimated that it could take anywhere from five to 40 years to reach the nearest supply wells.
The letter provided to the Journal is an expression of increasing Environment Department frustration with the cleanup progress. A month ago, in response to Journal questions about progress in meeting cleanup milestones, Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn issued a statement saying, “While we are by no means satisfied with the amount of time it has taken to make meaningful progress on this situation, we are encouraged by the Air Force’s efforts over the past 6 months.”
The April 24 letter takes a sterner tone, complaining about “an overall lack of attention to detail for a matter that is of the utmost importance to NMED and the State of New Mexico.”
Poor-quality work by the Air Force and its contractor, CB&I, “has jeopardized the achievement of the interim measures by the specified deadlines,” state Environmental Health Division Director Tom Blaine wrote.
According to the NMED’s letter, the Air Force had proposed “anaerobic biodegredation” as a first cleanup step – essentially using bacteria to eat the petroleum in the groundwater. To do that, the Air Force suggested a series of laboratory experiments that would have taken five months to complete, according to the Environment Department. Additional tests required before implementing the cleanup approach would mean a pilot test just to see if the method works “would likely take more than one year to complete,” the NMED letter said.
Instead, the NMED directed the Air Force to immediately install a “proven technology” in which air is pumped into the contaminated aquifer, removing contamination as it bubbles upward. Once the fuel is vaporized and rises into the soil layers above, the contamination can be sucked away using vacuum systems, Blaine said in an interview.
If the system is not installed and operating by June 30, the Environment Department said it would constitute a violation of the state’s Hazardous Waste Act and punishment “may include civil penalties of up to ten thousand dollars … per day.”
An Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority official praised the letter, saying it suggests state regulators are serious about holding the Air Force to the June 30 deadline. “I think this is a positive step,” said Rick Shean, water quality hydrologist for the agency.