Albuquerque’s municipal water utility will shut down drinking water wells if any contamination from a Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill is detected, no matter how low the levels, the agency’s board of directors decided Wednesday evening.
“The acceptable level in our water is zero,” said County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, a member of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board of directors.
“Our charge is to make sure the water is clean,” said City Councilor Rey Garduño, also a member of the water utility’s board.
The board’s position, contained in a policy resolution that was approved unanimously, makes official what agency staff members have been saying for at least four years – that any amount of ethylene dibromide, the most dangerous chemical in the contamination, no matter how small, would be cause to shut down the affected well.
Kirtland discovered a leaking underground pipe in 1999 and later concluded that it had likely been leaking for decades. An estimated 6 million to 24 million gallons were spilled. The latest estimates say contaminated water, moving in the aquifer 500 feet underground, could reach the nearest drinking water well in somewhere between five and 40 years.
“If it’s five years, we’re in a lot of trouble,” said City Councilor Klarissa Peña, the chairwoman of the water utility board.
There is precedent for the policy. When contamination from an old General Electric Aviation plant in the South Valley reached drinking water supply wells, the agency shut them down, drilling new wells in the Northeast Heights to replace the lost water supply. The wells were temporarily taken out of service when contamination was first discovered in 1978 and were permanently shut down in 1994, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report on the problem.
But when contamination is natural, rather than human-caused, the water utility has taken a different approach. The agency currently serves water contaminated with low levels of arsenic to Albuquerque customers. The arsenic, which occurs naturally in New Mexico groundwater, is below legally mandated safety levels, but is above zero.
The water utility has shut down some wells that have high concentrations of arsenic and has installed treatment equipment to reduce arsenic contamination in other wells. But some water with trace levels of arsenic is still delivered to Albuquerque homes and businesses.
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, one of the leaders in the push for Wednesday’s resolution, said EDB is different from arsenic because there is more scientific uncertainty about the chemical risk involved.
“Both arsenic and EDB are carcinogens but there’s widespread concern that a safe level of EDB hasn’t been established,” Hart Stebbins told the Journal .
The board resolution also called for the Air Force to move more quickly in cleaning up the spill. Members of the community are frustrated at the slow progress on the problem, Garduño said.