You probably know some of the back story already: In 1992, technicians at Kirtland Air Force Base detected a fuel spill in its Bulk Fuels Facility—a spill that began more than 30 years ago with the installation of “modernized” fuel storage facilities in 1953. In the 1980s the Air Force allegedly dodged the Environmental Protection Agency’s requests to investigate this leak, and got away with doing effectively nothing about it until 1999, when a pressure test of the fuel lines failed in a grand fashion: The added pressure from the test blew new holes in the already-leaking fuel lines. Kirtland Air Force Base officials acknowledged the spill and, finally, began efforts to measure the extent of the damage done.
Since 1999, estimates of how much fuel spilled from Kirtland since the leak began have fluctuated wildly: Initial estimates put the leak at about 100,000 gallons. In 2006, the New Mexico Environment Department said 8 million. The latest estimate is 24 million gallons. To give you a sense of scale, that’s roughly twice the size of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
The jet fuel seeped into the ground and, after a few decades, into the water table. (Yes, that would be the same water table that we get all of Albuquerque’s water from.) In the years since the fuel spill was officially recognized, the NMED has mapped the best estimates of the size and direction of the spill plume as it moves. Early studies said that the fuel was moving northeast, directly toward the Ridgecrest neighborhood and—more importantly—several drinking water wells. Now, the plume has moved from Kirtland all the way north of Gibson.
Last month, construction began on a fourth well to extract contaminated groundwater at Ridgecrest Drive and Ridgecrest Place. These wells have treated about 129.5 million gallons of contaminated water and removed about 41.6 grams of EDB as of Dec. 13, according to the NMED’s website.
The most—though not the only—concerning component of the spilled fuel is ethylene dibromide (EDB), a toxic chemical that was used as a fuel additive and agricultural fumigant until it was banned by the EPA 31 years ago. EDB is linked to cancer and reproductive issues in humans, and is a known cause of kidney and liver problems. The NMED has set a drinking water standard of 50 parts EDB per trillion. The EPA determined in 1995 that that the only safe amount of EDB in drinking water is none at all.
Even after the fuel spill became public knowledge in 1999, it wasn’t until 2015 that the Air Force and the NMED agreed on and began employing a remediation plan. Beginning in June 2015, they built three extraction wells in different locations that were affected by the spill, in addition to treatment facilities where the contaminated water is sent to be cleaned. As of today, the treated water is being used to water the golf course on the Kirtland base, though the cleanup crew is experimenting with pumping the cleaned water back into underground aquifers.
Last month, construction began on a fourth well to extract contaminated groundwater at Ridgecrest Drive and Ridgecrest Place. These wells have treated about 129.5 million gallons of contaminated water and removed about 41.6 grams of EDB as of Dec. 13, according to the NMED’s website. Unfortunately, the extraction well at Gibson and California is currently out of operation and undergoing repairs. The Air Force is expected to submit a work plan for the well’s rehabilitation in January 2017.
Diane Agnew, Hydrologist at the NMED told the Albuquerque Journal last month that the extraction wells are creating a “cone of depression” that’s pulling in contaminated water from the surrounding areas. “The cone of depression is telling us that we are hitting the plume in the right area,” she said.
According to data gathered from monitoring wells last year, the Albuquerque drinking water well that is most likely to have been contaminated is Ridgecrest 5, just south of Zuni and several blocks east of Louisiana.
It remains to be seen what the environmental implications of removing millions of gallons of groundwater from the local water table are, or what the NMED will do if drinking water wells in Albuquerque do become contaminated.
On March 9, 2017, the jet fuel cleanup team will once again hold a public outreach event that citizens can attend to ask questions and learn about the progress of cleanup efforts. The event will take place at the African American Performing Arts Center (310 San Pedro NE) from 6-8pm.