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‘Line in sand’ drawn for Kirtland fuel cleanup

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Water utility officials today will propose a cleanup plan for the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill that calls for drilling seven extraction wells at the leading edge of the contamination plume and treating the water to levels considered safe for irrigation uses.

Rick Shean, water quality hydrologist for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, told the Journal the intent of the draft plan he is expected to present to the water utility board tonight is to “draw a line in the sand” to prevent the spread of contaminants that threaten municipal water supplies.

The plan will require “buy-in” from the U.S. Air Force and approval from the New Mexico Environment Department, Shean said Tuesday.

“This would be a concept for the Air Force to consider,” Shean said. “This is not a plan that the water authority is going to be implementing itself, at least not at this time.”


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The estimated boundary of the plume extends from Kirtland Air Force Base as far north as Anderson SW and as far east as Louisiana SW, about 4,000 feet short of a municipal production well.

“We’re proposing to put in a line of wells that coincides with the estimated boundary” of the contamination, Shean said.

The small wells combined would pump an estimated 700,000 gallons of water daily and pipe it to a treatment facility, probably located at Kirtland Air Force Base, he said. The treatment facility would use a process, called granular activated carbon, and other techniques to filter contaminants from the water.

The intent of the project is to reduce contaminants to undetectable levels, Shean said and to use the treated water to irrigate parks and golf courses.

A final plan is expected by July, he said.

Base spokesman Carl Grusnick said Tuesday the Air Force had received no information about the proposal and declined comment on it. The utility’s proposal has no connection to a small pilot project the Air Force said it plans to install by July 1 to remove contaminants from another area of the mile-long plume, he said.

The spill involves an estimated 6 million to 24 million gallons of aircraft fuel from a leak in an underground pipeline at the base. It was discovered in 1999 but likely had been leaking for decades.

The contamination is moving through groundwater to the northeast toward Albuquerque drinking water wells.


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Estimates on how soon the contaminants might reach the wells start at seven years, while more recent studies put the time frame as long as 40 years.

In the 15 years since its discovery, no contaminated water has been cleaned up other than what was cleaned during a brief pump test last fall. The New Mexico Environment Department last August promised that an interim cleanup measure would be in place by July 1 and the announced Air Force pilot project meets that schedule, avoiding the possibility of fines.

Environment Department officials said in a written statement Tuesday that the agency looks forward to the utility’s presentation and values the water utility’s input.

The utility’s proposal is hampered by a lack of information about the extent of the contamination, Shean said. The Air Force and its consultant need more monitoring wells to determine the boundaries and depth of the contaminants, he said.

“They have an estimated boundary of the plume, but they truly don’t know where the edge is,” he said. “If they had more wells, we’d have a better idea of the boundary.”

Nor are officials certain of the depth of the contamination, Shean said.

Monitoring wells also have shown that the contamination extends at least 60 feet below ground, but deeper monitoring wells are needed, he said.

“We don’t know exactly how deep it goes because their current monitoring well network hasn’t found the bottom,” he said.

Grusnick declined to discuss the Air Force’s plan for assessing the boundaries of the contamination or any other aspect of the project.

State Environment Department officials on Tuesday said they are reviewing a new report from Kirtland and will determine whether the base needs to provide additional data.