Fifteen years after the discovery of leaking jet fuel at Kirtland Air Force Base, the Air Force says it still hasn’t determined the extent of contamination in the aquifer and that it needs to do more research before coming up with a final treatment plan to clean up the spill.
In an Aug. 27 letter to the New Mexico Environment Department, base commander Col. Tom Miller asked to formally withdraw thousands of pages of reports submitted by the Air Force to state regulators in March, citing “additional analysis requirements, clerical errors, and data gaps.”
The most important “data gap,” officials said, is a lack of information about how deep into Albuquerque’s aquifer the contamination has reached. They know it has moved at least a mile beneath an Albuquerque neighborhood, but they remain uncertain about the depth of the contamination.
In correspondence with state regulators in early August, the Air Force agreed that it needed to drill more monitoring wells in the southeast Albuquerque neighborhood adjacent to the base to try to answer that question. The wells will be drilled near Gibson and Louisiana SE, between known areas of contamination and the nearest drinking water wells.
Officials with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority have repeatedly pressed for answers to the depth question. “I have been asking for that for probably three years,” said Maggie Hart Stebbins, who represents the area on the Bernalillo County Commission and serves on the water utility board of directors.
State regulators say the new wells will help clarify the best way to approach halting the spread of contamination toward Albuquerque’s groundwater. “Filling the data gaps identified by the Air Force will ultimately aid in accelerating the cleanup process and lead to more effective final measures,” Environment Department spokeswoman Jill Turner said in a written statement.
Adria Bodour, the Air Force scientist overseeing the cleanup, said the new data and resulting revised reports would allow the Air Force and the Environment Department to find “the safest, most effective process to address possible contamination and remove any threat” to Albuquerque’s groundwater. No date has yet been set for completing that work.
The spill, which has contaminated an area of groundwater more than a mile long beneath Kirtland and southeast Albuquerque, was discovered in 1999 when Kirtland officials found a leaking pipe beneath the base’s aircraft fuel loading facilities. Two years later, base workers found contamination in a groundwater monitoring well and, by 2007, they realized that a substantial amount of fuel had migrated through soil layers more than 500 feet and was floating atop the groundwater.
Years of analysis, including 116 groundwater monitoring wells and another 287 wells drilled to look for contamination in soil layers above the water table, have left many unanswered questions, including uncertainty over how much fuel leaked over the years.
A March report by a contractor for the Air Force put the size of the spill at 6 million gallons, while a New Mexico Environment Department scientist estimated that as much as 24 million gallons may have leaked.
Estimates of how long it might take for contamination to reach Albuquerque’s drinking water wells also vary wildly, from as little as five years to as long as 40 years. Water utility officials say they would be forced to shut down the wells if that ever happens, depriving Albuquerque of a major source of its drinking water supply.
While the Air Force has run vacuum units to pull leaked fuel vapors from the soil layers since the mid-2000s, there has been almost no cleanup of groundwater, where most of the fuel ended up. Officials have argued that more data was needed on the extent of the contamination and the groundwater conditions before a final cleanup plan could be implemented.
In 2010, the Air Force told the New Mexico Environment Department it would have the necessary data collected by fall 2013, but the latest delay means it is now uncertain when that data-gathering phase of the work will be completed. As recently as a public meeting held in July, Air Force officials told residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the fuel spill they thought the data-collection process was complete and that they were ready to begin designing the final cleanup system.
In March 2011, the Air Force in a report to Congress said it planned to have a final cleanup system installed and operating by Sept. 30. With the latest delay, it remains unclear when that will happen.