Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Drilling started this month on a fourth well intended to extract groundwater contaminated by the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel leak and send the tainted water to a cleaning system on base.
During a public meeting Thursday, Air Force and New Mexico Environment Department officials said the new well is being drilled south of Ridgecrest Drive and east of San Pedro Drive. It should be operational sometime in January.
About 60 people attended the meeting at the African American Performing Arts Center on the New Mexico Expo grounds. They heard the cleanup team report that 118 million gallons of groundwater has been extracted and treated since the first extraction well went online in June 2015 in a church parking lot at 6200 Gibson SE.
Originating in KAFB storage tanks, the fuel leak is believed to have been seeping into the ground for decades before it was detected in 1999. Now, a plume of groundwater laced with ethylene dibromide, an aviation fuel additive, stretches from the base north of Gibson and into an area bordered by San Pedro, Kathryn Avenue and Louisiana SE.
The major concern has been that the leak will pollute drinking water wells in the Southeast Heights.
“We have no detectable fuel contamination in any of our drinking water wells,” Dennis McQuillan, NMED chief scientist, said Thursday. “But we haven’t seen the footprint of the contamination plume shrinking.”
During a public meeting in July, the cleanup team reported that extraction wells had created a “cone of depression” that is sucking polluted water into the cleaning system. On Thursday, the team said that is still happening.
“The cone of depression is telling us that we are hitting the plume in the right area,” said Diane Agnew, NMED hydrologist.
Project funding is in place for up to eight extraction wells, but the cleanup team intends to limit the number to four for a couple of years to find out if that’s enough to get the job done. Drilling wells is disruptive to the community in which they are located, so the team wants to make sure wells are necessary before punching holes in neighborhood streets.
In addition to the well in the church parking lot and the one being drilled now off Ridgecrest, there are extraction wells at Georgia and Anderson SE and California and Gibson SE.
The latter, however, has been out of action since June 18 because it was drawing in sediment and bacteria. That problem requires a lengthy well-head treatment process. Officials said Thursday they hope to have that well back online sometime this spring.
In another development, the team reported that the filtering system at the groundwater treatment center on base has been beefed up by the addition of two 20,000-pound granular activated carbon tanks. There are now four 20,000-pound tanks at the center.
Another concern has been just what to do with all those millions of gallons of extracted water once they have been treated and cleaned. During summer months, the water has been used to irrigate KAFB golf courses, but that’s not practical during winter months when the courses do not require as much water and lower temperatures might freeze up irrigation lines.
A recently completed pilot project tested the possibility of using a KAFB well to inject the treated water into the aquifer. Agnew said the test was successful.
“We inadvertently stressed this well,” Agnew said. “We ran it through the ringer and it performed like a champ. This well performed better than we expected.”
Officials said the injection well proved capable of putting water back into the aquifer at the rate of 800 gallons per minute but noted that an operating level of 300 gallons per minute should be adequate. They said up to four additional injection wells could be added on base if they are deemed necessary.