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Drilling on Kirtland wells to start in 2015

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The Air Force unveiled a proposal Wednesday to begin drilling wells in 2015 to try to intercept groundwater contamination from a Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill before it can reach Albuquerque municipal drinking water wells.

In all, the proposal calls for eight new cleanup wells to be operating by August 2016.

But a top Air Force official acknowledged that the first of the wells will not be installed until mid-2015, missing a December deadline to get that phase of the work completed. “We will not be achieving that goal by December of this year,” Deputy Assistant Air Force Secretary Mark Correll told members of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board.

Correll and other Air Force officials spent Wednesday explaining their proposal to members of the state’s congressional delegation and Albuquerque city and county officials before making their first public presentation of the plans at Wednesday’s water utility authority board meeting.

In a statement, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said the meeting with the Air Force gave “a better indication that the Air Force is planning to take more immediate steps to address the fuel spill.” But her statement made clear that the service has work to do to win public trust for the process. “Without a robust effort and a significant and effective plan to clean up the spill, the Albuquerque community has lost faith in the Air Force’s willingness to address the problem,” Lujan Grisham said.

The Air Force also got a mixed reception from water utility officials, who have long complained about slow progress in dealing with the decades-old spill.

Correll said the new wells were intended to halt the spread of the contamination while the Air Force works on future plans to deal with the heart of the multimillion gallon fuel spill beneath the base and adjacent neighborhoods of southeast Albuquerque.

“Our goal is to ensure that the drinking water in Albuquerque is never contaminated,” Correll told the water utility authority board.

Water utility chief executive Mark Sanchez said the agency supported the new proposal, which reflects an approach to the cleanup that the water utility has long been asking for. But Sanchez said he was frustrated by how long the cleanup was taking. “We want the timeline to be much quicker,” Sanchez said.

The spill was detected in 1999, and water utility board member Rey Garduño expressed frustration at how long it is taking to clean it up. Garduño, an Albuquerque City Council member who represents the neighborhoods affected, said his constituents are frustrated. “Nothing gets done,” Garduño said.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn responded that a new Air Force team brought in this summer has begun moving on new, more aggressive cleanup efforts. “We’re starting to see progress,” Flynn said.