Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
For those who consider the long-awaited cleanup of the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel leak an answer to prayers, it may seem only appropriate that it will start at a church.
The first well designed to extract groundwater contaminated by ethylene dibromide is scheduled to start pumping by the end of June in the west parking lot of Christ United Methodist Church at 6200 Gibson Blvd. SE.
“This will be the first groundwater remediation well, a dagger in the heart of the (fuel leak) plume,” said Dennis McQuillan, geologist with the New Mexico Environment Department and part of the fuel spill cleanup team. “It’s a milestone in the project.”
And a much welcomed step for the Rev. Kimberly Dawn Kinsey, pastor of Christ United Methodist.
“I’m excited because that’s what I’ve been waiting for all along – remediation and extraction,” said Kinsey, who grew up in Albuquerque and whose residence, like the church, sits atop the contaminated area. “It’s a real important thing for Albuquerque, so I’m just excited to be part of it and be able to support it.”
Christ United Methodist Church, which dates back to 1957, is on the south side of Gibson between San Pedro Drive and Louisiana Boulevard, less than a half-mile west of KAFB’s boundary on Louisiana and about 2 miles north of the point on the base where the fuel leak originated.
McQuillan said the church site was chosen for the first extraction well because three nearby monitor wells showed ethylene dibromide (EDB) levels above drinking water standards, which makes it one of two such hot spots in the contaminated area. The other is a short distance north.
The major concern is that the leak, if unchecked, might contaminate Southeast Heights drinking water wells. The nearest is within a mile of the fuel plume, but Air Force and state Environment Department officials say those wells are not in imminent danger of contamination.
Fuel leak history
Believed to have been seeping into the ground for decades, the fuel leak originated at a bulk fuel facility built at Kirtland in the early 1950s.
First detected by the Air Force in 1999, the leak has grown into a contamination plume about 6,500 feet long and 1,500 feet across. The Air Force has faced criticism in recent years for not acting more quickly.
Estimates of the quantity of fuel leaked into the groundwater range from 6 million to 24 million gallons.
The extraction well at Christ United Methodist is the first of eight wells – four this year, four in 2016 – that will be drilled to pump out contaminated water and feed it into pipes that send it to an activated carbon-filter cleaning system on the Air Force base.
McQuillan said the other three wells set to be drilled by the end of 2015 will go in north of Gibson and wells drilled in 2016 will likely go in south of Gibson. Location of the wells will be designed to collapse the fuel plume back toward the Air Force base and away from the drinking water wells.
Before the extraction well could be drilled, the cleanup team needed to find the bottom of the fuel plume. For that purpose, a probe well was drilled in the church’s west parking lot. McQuillan said the probe well hit clean water, indicating the bottom of the plume, at about 558 feet below ground.
Drilling of the extraction well at the church should start in April, according to Wayne Bitner, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s restoration program manager at Kirtland.
A drilling rig will be in the church lot for a time, but once the extraction well is in place, McQuillan said it will be as unobstrusive as any private water well.
“The Air Force is being very sensitive to the fact that we have homes and businesses in this area, and the church is being very gracious,” McQuillan said.
Drilling is not a new experience for the church community. While the probe well and the extraction well will be the only two wells actually on church property, five monitor wells have been drilled just outside the property and another monitor well will be drilled nearby soon.
Kinsey and Christ United Methodist trustee Art Sharpe said this has not been a problem.
“We’ve had quite a bit of drilling, but they have always informed us of what they were going to do and have worked with us,” Kinsey said. “We have had a good relationship with them.”
“I honestly think they are trying not to be intrusive and still get the job done,” Sharpe said.
Bitner said the Air Force and its contractors are working hard at being good neighbors.
“We work 8 to 5 Mondays through Fridays, but not on Saturdays and Sundays,” he said. “And we will work with the church if it has special events, such as during the Easter season.”
Such an event happened Feb. 3 when about a dozen people, Air Force representatives and project contractors, were working on the probe well in the church parking lot on a day the church dispenses food to about 80 needy families.
Sharpe said the workers not only stopped drilling when families began to line up outside the church, but they joined the church staff in distributing the food.
Some members of the cleanup crew stopped traffic on Gibson so the Roadrunner Food Bank truck could back into the church lot, he said. Others purchased wagons at a nearby store to help cart food to cars and then donated the wagons to the church.
“You would not believe how cooperative they are,” Sharpe said. “I know people have been concerned that this project has been taking a long time, but I think they wanted to be sure they knew what they were doing and not just guessing. There is an awful lot of guessing going on in this world.”