Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Calls for clean-up intensify around Kirtland Air Force Base’s spill into ABQ’s groundwater

A decades-old U.S. Air Force jet fuel spill into Albuquerque’s groundwater is garnering renewed attention from officials as concerns rise over a lagging clean-up effort.

Eric Olivas, who chairs the city and county’s water utility, sent a letter requesting Rep. Melanie Stansbury to push the Air Force to clean up, as first reported in the Albuquerque Journal.

The letter asked for political pressure on the Air Force to work with state regulators, develop a public timeline, guarantee funding and start treating and removing fuel further below ground.

Utility experts, Olivias cites, estimate that under the “passive” approach taken currently by the Air Force, clean up could stretch up to 800 years.

“Such a timeline is unacceptable. Aggressive action on the site is needed now. The longer the Air Force delays, the longer the site will remain contaminated and the more difficult and costly it will be to clean up.” wrote Olivas.

In a call with Source NM, Olivas said he hoped to see a “reset” for the Air Force, with help from the congressional delegation.

“While we did see some really stiff action by the Air Force at one point, in the mid-2010s, that has largely stopped.”

In response to the letter, Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) called Tuesday for the Air Force to “quickly and decisively” act on the spill.

“Our communities deserve action, transparency, and collaboration from Air Force leadership, and I will be working to ensure the Air Force is responsive to the needs of our community,” she said in an emailed statement.

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Now, Kirtland has a new deadline to meet.

The New Mexico Environment Department directed the Air Force to submit three past-due work plans by July 31, or possibly face a fine.

“No further extensions will be granted, and the Permittee will be out of compliance if the Plans are not submitted by that date,” wrote Rick Shean, the resource protection director for New Mexico Environment Department.

When asked about next steps, Ashley Palacios, the spokesperson for Kirtland Air Force Base said discussions were ongoing with NMED “to schedule future meetings.”

Matthew Maez, a spokesperson for NMED, disputed that.

“We made it clear that we were not interested in future meetings with them, if they are not going to abide by the sampling protocol requirements,” Maez said in an email.

The plume

For decades, a plume of fuel ballooned out from a network of underground pipes and tankers to store the air base’s fuel. When it was discovered in 1999, investigators found quarter-sized holes in the pipes. This allowed as much as 24 million gallons of jet fuel to soak through soils and float on top of groundwater below the city.

The contaminants are not in the city’s drinking water, and the plume is approximately half a mile away from the nearest well.

“The contaminated groundwater is not being served to our customers,” said Diane Agnew, the water rights program manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. “We voluntarily sample our nearby wells on a monthly basis. Nothing has been detected in those wells to date.”

A slide from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority portion of the presentation at the March 22 meeting. Local officials said they are concerned the Air Force is underrepresenting the contaminant plume. (Courtesy ABCWUA)

But since the city has lessened its draw on the aquifer, the water table has risen. That can create a cycle of recontamination in the water, as the groundwater encounters fuel-soaked soils, or trapped gasses from the spill. Agnew said that cycle over time could increase the total pool of contaminated water, and the time it takes to clean it.

When the fuel dissolves in water, it breaks down into toxic, cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and ethylene dibromide (EDB) – which can harm people through ingestion or inhaling the fumes. Long-term effects of benzene exposures can cause leukemia and other blood disorders in people.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations for drinking water say ethylene dibromide and benzene levels cannot legally exceed 5 parts per billion. This legal limit is called the maximum contaminant level.

The Air Force is using that number as its ruler, said Palacios, the spokesperson for Kirtland.

“The Air Force does not target a specific number of gallons for clean-up,” Palacios said in a written statement to Source NM. “Rather, we will continue to treat groundwater until the contaminants are removed to below cleanup limits.”

But local water experts pushed back on calling water with any amount of ethylene dibromide “safe.”

“The maximum contaminant level is set by the EPA, and it doesn’t represent human health,” Agnew said in a March meeting. “It represents what the EPA believes is a technical, feasible level that they can measure a contaminant to and treat a contaminant to.”

The EPA’s metric for human health is called the maximum contaminant level goal, which Agnew said should be the number driving risk assessment and cleanup efforts.

“The goal is zero. That means that the EPA recognizes that the only safe amount of ethylene dibromide to consume is zero,” Agnew said.

‘A wake-up call’ 

The increased pressure comes after a March utility meeting with conflicting presentations from the Air Force contrasted against state regulators and local water experts.

Olivas said he hoped the March 22 Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority meeting would be a “wake-up call,” about the issue, which he said has stretched on for too long.

The Air Force struck a different tone. Colonel Jason F. Vattioni and Ryan Wortman, a physical scientist at Kirtland, lauded work on the spill since 2014, which included the installation of four extraction wells, the treatment of 1.5 billion gallons of groundwater and remediating soils to a depth of 20 feet.

Vattioni called the Air Force’s work since 2014 puts the military “on the road” to a final cleanup of the bulk fuels facility. However, those “tremendous progresses” are under threat, he said.

“Unfortunately, we are encountering a shift from the collaborative environment that has facilitated the superb progress of the site thus far,” Vattioni said. “Recently, there seems to be concern, questioning the great work done together, by our collective agencies and partners. We should strive to prevent any undoing of the progress made.”

Col. Jason Vattioni, 377th Air Base Wing commander, discusses the Bulk Fuels Facility Cleanup Project with Ben Mouyyad, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers technical lead, at the Groundwater Treatment Facility at Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, July 21, 2022. The Groundwater Treatment Facility cleans ethylene dibromide (EDB) from the drinking water supply. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Spencer Kanar / Public domain)

The state regulators see it differently.

The clean-up has remained in the first investigation phase since the spill was discovered, said Shean, who now oversees the project at NMED.

Under the federal process for cleaning up hazardous waste, the spill is first identified, followed by an investigation. After an investigation, the regulators and Air Force would consider remedies by a proposal process. After a method would be selected, there’d be a chance for the public to weigh in, and then clean-up and track the progress until completed.

Shean said the first major actions to pump and treat the water in 2014 only happened after the Air Force, which was under different leadership, was forcibly brought to the table, with pressure from elected officials and NMED.

“There was fierce resistance of a pump-and-treat system,” Shean said of the Air Force at the time.

He acknowledged the Air Force showed up with money and effort, and said the work relaxed the direct threat to Albuquerque drinking water at Ridgecrest wells.

Now, however, there needs to be a focus on “source” cleanup, including restarting a project on cleaning up the soils, which was decommissioned.

NMED rejected the Air Force’s most recent work plans in November. Shean said the Air Force’s data and sampling methods provide an incomplete picture, and are not reliable enough to capture how much fuel or vapors are in the surrounding soil, or floating on the groundwater.

“We feel we’re getting pushback from Kirtland Air Force Base regarding the direction we’re giving them on how they’re sampling,” Shean said.

Wortman, the physical scientist at Kirtland, said that these data gaps are “important to address,” in response to questions from the utility authority.

“We just need to flesh out what those specific data points are, and what is needed to close out that investigation phase,” Wortman said. 

There’s no definitive timeline for the next step, but Shean said the Air Force would need to provide at least two years of active testing, which could push finding a clean-up solution to another two or three years.

Shean said he accepts the Air Force’s word that they want to produce a work plan that will get NMED approval. 

“If we can do that and not play this game of sending letters back and forth, then I think this is going to get done faster,” Shean said.

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