Tuesday, May 04, 2010
State: Kirtland Jet Fuel Leak Massive
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
A new estimate puts the volume of a Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel leak at nearly 8 million gallons.
Those are Exxon Valdez-scale numbers, and the fuel is slowly creeping through the water table beneath an Albuquerque neighborhood toward municipal water wells. State officials say there are serious questions about whether the Air Force is acting quickly enough to deal with the problem.
"It's probably the biggest groundwater contamination problem in the state right now," said Bruce Thomson, head of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program.
More than 10 years after the spill was discovered, the Air Force still does not know the full extent of the contamination, according to a sharply worded April letter from the New Mexico Environment Department to the Air Force.
The letter labels the spill "a significant threat to human health and the environment, particularly to well water in urban neighborhoods adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base."
There appears to be no danger to the people living on top of the spreading contamination. The real danger is to Albuquerque's water supply. Two municipal water supply wells are in the fuel's path. If it reaches them, the wells will have to be shut down.
Air Force officials believe the size of the spill is substantially smaller and say they are dealing with the problem. A network of monitoring wells is being used to characterize the extent of the contamination. Four extraction pumps are slowly pulling some of the fuel out of the ground. The Air Force has already spent $10 million dealing with the leak.
"We own the problem," said Col. Matt Bartlett, the base's mission support commander. "We're going to fix the problem."
State regulators do not sound confident about the effort.
In a briefing for federal officials on the issue, James Bearzi of the Environment Department called the Air Force's approach "a little league approach to a major league problem."
The fuel came from underground pipes at a Kirtland loading facility built in the 1950s. Air Force officials first noticed something amiss in 1999, and they think it had been leaking for decades.
It was not until 2007 that the Air Force investigations revealed the fuel had reached the water table and was moving off of the Air Force base, beneath the neighborhoods of southeast Albuquerque, toward the city's water wells.
Groundwater contamination seems to be inevitable in urban areas, and the Albuquerque metro area has its share:
• Four water wells were shut down in an area on the east edge of Downtown Albuquerque after the discovery in the late 1980s of hazardous waste from a defunct dry cleaners.
• Nearly 10,000 tons of contaminated dirt have already been dug out of an old Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad tie plant, and a water treatment plant is currently under construction.
• Twenty private water wells and two municipal wells were closed after contamination escaped from the old General Electric plant in Bernalillo County's South Valley.
In all, the Environment Department is tracking 27 groundwater contamination sites in the county under various stages of monitoring and cleanup.
But when you combine the size of the jet fuel spill and its proximity to a key part of the water supply of the state's largest metro area, nothing in the metro area, or anywhere in the state, comes close to the Kirtland problem.
The Air Force and Kirtland disagree on the numbers. The Air Force estimates that between 1 million and 2 million gallons of jet fuel leaked. The Environment Department puts the size of the spill at 8 million gallons.
Big numbers like that are sometimes hard to think about, so here's a comparison.
The Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled an estimated 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.
The aquifer beneath the city remains a critical part of our long-term water supply, said John Stomp, chief operating officer with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. While the utility is shifting to more use of surface water, Stomp said groundwater remains "our savings account."
Tucked on one edge of Whittier Elementary School off San Mateo SE, next to the playground, is Stomp's Burton Well 5. Its 600 horsepower motor is capable of pumping 2,850 gallons of water per minute. Jet fuel is currently less than a mile away and moving slowly in the well's direction. A second municipal well, located in the city's International District, also is in the fuel's path.
"It needs to be cleaned up," Stomp said of the spill. "It's moving. It's large."
The urgency with which state regulators view the problem can be seen in an obscure but significant bureaucratic development last month. In an April 2 letter, the Environment Department informed the Air Force that jurisdiction over the fuel spill was being transferred from the state's Groundwater Quality Bureau to the Hazardous Waste Bureau.
That might sound like boring organization chart stuff, but it has substantive implications. Groundwater regulators had little regulatory muscle to push the Air Force because of restrictions on their ability to tell federal agencies what to do. Not so the Hazardous Waste Bureau, which has broader legal authority to compel federal agencies to act to monitor and clean up spills.
The letter is an attempt to force the Air Force to drill more monitoring wells, to better characterize the extent of the contamination, to get a better handle on what the next steps in cleaning it up need to be.
"We need to know," Bearzi said in an interview, "and we need to know now."