Alibi V.25 No.16 • April 21-27, 2016 

Environment

Keep It Wet & Sludgy

hazard
Illo by Brie Macquarrie

A city in the desert is a ridiculous thing. Try this on: Albuquerque has an average annual rainfall of 9.45 inches—that's over 29 inches less than the national average. Now consider that the average local resident uses 127 gallons per day, and just try to tell me we aren't the wackiest monkeys on the block. I'd like to see a bonobo top that one. The real achievement though, is that after generations of enjoying such infrastructure, we've completely forgotten that it was ever any different. When I'm standing in the shower, staring at a clump of gooey shampoo that's hanging onto the bottle and hearing an inane pop song loop through my head, the last thing I'm thinking about is how weird it is that I get to take a shower at all.

But it's not a given. If our water supply is ever seriously contaminated, then that's it, kids. Turn off the lights and lock the door that hit you on the ass. The UN might have recognized access to water as an unalienable right, but it's still hard to come by in the desert. Which is probably why threats to the city's water make people so uncomfortable. Fortunately, our local government isn't troubled at all. Here are some things you should not worry your little head over:

1. Kirtland Air Force Base Jet Fuel Spill

In 1999, the Air Force informed the state of soil contamination that had been detected at Kirtland, a major refueling spot for military aircraft. Apparently a leak had gone "undetected" since the 1950s, spreading dissolved and non-dissolved jet fuel constituents in the groundwater beneath the base. “Undetected” needs quotation marks because signs of the spill were already apparent in 1992, but the Air Force ignored requests by the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the possible leak for six years. Estimates of the spill quantity range from 6 to 24 million gallons of fuel, with the plume reaching at least a mile away from the source. Some of this nasty stuff, which includes the carcinogen ethylene dibromide or EDB, has even made it to the aquifer, although city officials claim it will be at least a couple of decades before it gets into the drinking water.

The Air Force has finally—after years of hemming and hawwing—put forth an actual effort to start pumping contaminated water out of the aquifer. The plan is to move the contaminated material away from the city's drinking water and back to the base by using extraction wells to collapse the plume.

2. Laun-Dry Supply Company Leak

It's surprising that a company with such a clever name would have so much trouble handling its incredibly toxic cleaning chemicals, but in 2005 the New Mexico Environment Department ordered Laun-Dry Supply Co. to come up with a cleanup plan for toxic and carcinogenic contaminants found in the groundwater surrounding their facility, including perchloroethene (PCE), trichloroethene (TCE), and dichloroethene (DCE).

In the decade since, the company has installed monitor wells and a groundwater pump behind their building, as well as having fixed the initial leak, but no concrete plans have been made to do something about the chemicals already in the aquifer.

According to a report by KUNM, the dry cleaning solvents involved in the leak have been measured at levels thousands of times higher than state standards, and could even be coming up as breathable fumes. The report also quoted Laun-Dry's attorney as saying the 10-year wait wasn't something to be troubled about.

NMED countered the KUNM piece with their own downplayed version, saying that a graphic map in the original article was incorrect, claiming portions were extrapolating outside the sampled area and the acceptable thresholds for TCE were ignored. They also attacked claims that the threat to public health hadn't been communicated clearly, and that information about the spill was hard to find or nonexistent on the NMED website. KUNM printed the objections along with a healthy list of sources that backed their original statements.

3. Sandia National Laboratories Mixed Waste Landfill

Between 1959 and 1988, the MWL, located on Kirtland Airforce Base, was filled with a buffet of radioactive and hazardous waste—some of which was the product of nuclear meltdown experiments conducted by SNL. The nasty porridge includes metals like lead, nickel, cadmium, carcinogenic solvents tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene(TCE) and dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12), and everyone's favorite radioactive bad boys: uranium and plutonium. The labs also worked with materials from test sites all over the country, including contaminated drums from the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island and depleted uranium from the Nevada missile test site. Of course, these are just the materials we know of, appearing in the “unclassified area.” Who knows what's in the “classified” one.

At the time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission figured it was perfectly okay to dump this shit into shallow, unlined ditches, as specifically engineered waste storage facilities did not exist at the time, but the practice would never happen today. The fact that such a place exists so close to residential areas should already scare you. Add to it that it sits over the aquifer that supplies the city's municipal wells, and that in 1967 19,414,470 gallons of reactor coolant water were dumped in or near the MWL—turning the pile into a seeping liquid—and that some of the material has reached ground soil, and the whole thing should make your knees a little rubbery.

In 2005, NMED ordered Sandia to bury the unlined ditches under a layer of dirt—since contaminant transport was most likely to happen by wind erosion of surface soil—and crossed their fingers. This solution was based on information gleaned from groundwater monitoring wells that were already known to be improperly placed at the site, and were deemed by NMED itself as inadequate. In February 2015, the New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed NMED's approval of the Long Term Monitoring and Maintenance Plan despite concerns voiced by Citizen Action New Mexico over improper oversight and the possibility of water contamination (not to mention their assertion that the current “solution” of sealing the pits off with dirt is actually speeding up the process of pushing the waste toward the water supply).

But not to worry, folks. Our local government has everything under control and you should just trust that they're taking care of bizness. There's nothing to see here. (However, if you do begin to show signs of contracting super powers from your drinking water, make sure to let us know. We're always looking for a few good interns.)