ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When she was 8 years old, Kathryn Lynnes and her father were passengers in a Piper Cub during a recreational flight over a western section of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, near Lynnes’ hometown of Muskegon.
As the plane approached White Lake, north of Muskegon, young Lynnes could envision the lake as she had seen it from its shores – sparkling waters, birds flying around, men fishing.
“But from the air, you could see these big plumes of goo, three plumes of different colors. It was just startling,” said Lynnes, now 58 and the new senior program manager for the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill cleanup.
The White Lake plumes were toxic runoffs from a DuPont plant, a big tannery and a Hooker Chemical plant.
Seeing them so vividly from a bird’s-eye view had a profound effect on young Lynnes. She avoided swimming in White Lake after that, started an ecology club in her junior high school and, as an adult, has made cleaning up environmental hazards her life’s work.
“Everyone who does (environmental cleanup) for a living has a similar story from their childhood that made them want to fix things,” she said.
Lynnes earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Michigan Technological University and a law degree from the University of Oregon. She worked as an environmental consultant for private industry and municipal governments for the first 20 years of her career.
“I actually worked on the (White Lake) Hooker Chemical site in the late ’80s,” she said.
She moved to New Mexico in 2004 and worked two years in the Hazardous Waste Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department. From 2006 to 2009, she was employed in contamination cleanup in the state’s copper mining industry and did the same at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 2009 until this past September. That’s when the Air Force hired her as the primary manager of the KAFB fuel spill cleanup.
The state Environment Department, which works closely with the Air Force on the project, said it “looks forward to seeing continued significant progress on the Kirtland fuel spill cleanup” now that Lynnes is involved.
Originating in fuel storage tanks at Kirtland, the spill – estimated at between 6 million and 24 million gallons – is believed to have been seeping into the ground for decades before it was discovered in 1999. Concern over the threat the leak posed to Albuquerque drinking water wells in the Southeast Heights has run high over the years – as has frustration with the delayed response to the situation.
Things turned around in the summer of 2014 when a team of Air Force scientists led by Albuquerque native Adria Bodour came on board. Since then, the first extraction well has come on line and, according to the Air Force and the NMED, millions of gallons of contaminated water has been pumped to a filtering system for cleaning, 5,000 tons of soil contaminated with fuel has been removed from the site and 570,000 gallons of contaminated soil vapor has been extracted.
Bodour remains the lead scientist on the KAFB cleanup, but Bodour is based in San Antonio, Texas. The Air Force hired Lynnes, who, like Bodour, is a civilian, to have someone on site full time.
“It helps to know the regulations in the state and the activists in the state,” Lynnes said. “It’s just hard to do that long distance.”
Highly qualified expert
Because of her extensive experience in every aspect – technical, political and regulatory – of mopping up environmental messes, the Air Force took the rare step of designating Lynnes a “highly qualified expert.” That’s why “HQE” is behind Lynnes’ name on her business card.
Her strong suit is the regulations and permits that govern environmental cleanup projects. Every day, she reads the Federal Register – the U.S. government’s official journal of rules, proposed rules and public notices. She can reel off regulations like a veteran waiter rattling off the specials of the day and the beers on tap.
“You can’t do environmental without understanding the regulations,” Lynnes said. “I try not to ever become technically inept. What we do every day they don’t teach in school.”
She takes the on-site portion of her job to heart. When she moved to Albuquerque, she got a house as close as possible to the Southeast Heights area that sits on top of the plume of contaminants that leaked off-base from Kirtland’s fuel storage tanks. She walks her three dogs – two terriers and a border collie – in that area, now dotted with monitoring wells designed to keep tabs on the plume’s boundaries.
It is the mission of Lynnes and her Air Force colleagues, working with the state Environment Department, to make sure that plume does not get near drinking water wells.
The first well for extracting contaminants started pumping in June. Lynnes said a second extraction well started operating late in December and a third will go on line later this month.
Challenges include determining future sites for extraction wells and figuring out what to do with the water after it is cleaned in a carbon-filter system on base. That water has been used to irrigate a base golf course. Another possibility is percolating the water back into the aquifer, perhaps injecting it into the ground via a well on base.
“You need the most environmentally sound option,” she said. “It makes sense to put (the cleaned water) back into the aquifer.”
An uninformed visitor to Lynnes’ KAFB office might mistake her for a professional baseball executive. Baseball memorabilia – including bobblehead dolls for the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Single-A West Michigan White Caps of Grand Rapids and the Detroit Tigers – crowd the bookshelves. She even has a bobblefoot doll of Tigers’ legend Ty Cobb, depicted in base-stealing mode.
To say she is a huge baseball fan is inadequate: She plans her vacation around Major League Baseball’s spring training season.
“My grandmother Stewart was a Tigers fan,” Lynnes said. “We would listen to Ernie Harwell broadcasting Tigers games on a transistor radio in the back yard (in Muskegon).”
If she got her love of baseball from her maternal grandmother, she most likely got her devotion to the environment from her father, Clifford Lynnes. He grew up in a log cabin in the Michigan woods.
“My (paternal) grandfather was a lumberjack,” she said. “My grandparents lived on 40 acres in White Cloud, Mich. It was a mile and a half to the mailbox. They had a barn and an outhouse. My father went to a one-room schoolhouse. He hunted, fished, ran a trapline and had a garden.”
When he was a kid, Lynnes’ dad entertained himself.
“He made a cannon, made the gunpowder for it and fired it at the neighbor’s barn,” Lynnes said. “My mom would not let me have a chemistry set because she was afraid it (her father’s behavior ) was genetic.”
She may not have inherited her dad’s interest in military weaponry, but she shares his love for the woods. Between undergraduate school and law school, Lynnes worked as an environmental engineer for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska.
One of her first assignments in Alaska was to find out why the workers in a logging camp on Prince of Wales Island were suffering “raging diarrhea.”
Lynnes walked up the stream that supplied water to the camp until she found a dead and “very ripe” bear in the water. Case solved.
She knows that the Kirtland fuel spill is a much tougher job and that it will take many years to complete the cleanup.
“Protecting the aquifer here is really important,” she said. “Once something hits the groundwater, no one has a magic wand. You can’t fix the sins of the past overnight. But I have a unique skill set, and I feel I can really make a difference.”