More than four years ago, Weekly Alibi investigative reporter David Correia was one of the first members of the New Mexico media to take an in-depth look at a potentially huge environmental problem fermenting on Burque’s southeast side.
A very large plume of aircraft fuel and associated carcinogenic hydrocarbons—more than 50 years in the making by some expert’s reckoning—was an imminent threat to one of our town’s most important, life-
Fast forward a few years and the problem that “you’ve never heard of” has become the obvious threat to the environment that practically everyone has forgotten about. Case in point: last year the US Air Force—and the administration of former Mayor Richard Berry—determined there wasn’t enough public interest in the issue to warrant the creation and maintenance of a citizen advisory board.
Thankfully that attitude has changed in Berry’s passage from civic influence. The spill and solutions to its ultimate remediation are being discussed again—by the N.M. Environment Department, The City Water Advisory Board and the progenitors of the problem, the US Air Force.
There have been many developments of late with regards to dealing with the still-spreading leak. Given that this important issue—hey clean water equals vida, carnales—has bubbled up only to disappear, we assume many have misplaced the particulars of the spill and its subsequent ramifications. Here’s a briefing then, for your eyes only.
In case you haven’t noticed or may have forgotten, there’s a huge military operation being conducted 24/7, immediately southeast of downtown Albuquerque. Kirtland Air Force Base occupies more than 50,000 acres, hugging the Manzano mountains as one of its boundaries and Gibson Boulevard here in town as one of its other demarcations.
Important national security work goes on all of the time at Kirtland. The nation’s nuclear stockpile is managed there, among other missions. Thousands of military aircraft land at the base on a yearly basis and have been doing so since the early ’50s.
In 1999, officials at the base say they discovered one of the underground pipelines used to supply jet fuel to all of those airplanes was leaking. Though estimates vary—as do timetables of when the leak was actually discovered—as to the size of the spill, it is generally agreed to be around 24 million gallons of a type of gasoline used to fuel jets.
Just north and east of the KAFB frontiers, Albuquerqueans live their lives, using wells that draw water from an underground source that is situated in the path of the seeping jet fuel spill.
The type of aviation fuel being absorbed into the ground—and potentially the aquifer—is known to contain an ingredient called ethylene dibromide (EDB), a known carcinogen; according to investigative reporter Correia, “Every gallon of aviation gas included enough EDB to contaminate millions of gallons of drinking water.”
The EPA notes that EDB is as insidious as it is poisonous, writing in an official report, “individuals who consume EDB in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL), 0.05 micro grams per liter (or parts per billion), could experience problems with the liver, stomach, reproductive system or kidneys, and may have an increased risk of cancer.
After much was made in the alternative media and among citizen action groups about the fuel spill, those responsible settled into the slow routine of remediation. The stories from each side of the issue are often profoundly different, though all claim to be invested in values like community health and environmental accountability.
The US Air Force reports, for instance, that its current priority is to implement “a robust site monitoring and wellhead protection program to protect drinking water supply wells” and “operation of a groundwater treatment system that extracts contaminated groundwater from the ethylene dibromide plume.”
Last month, the Air Force deployed a new well near the source of the decades-old leak, to speed the extraction of contaminated materials and “stop feeding the plume.”
Despite these reassurances, local science writer and water expert John Fleck reported on a memo from Rick Shean, the Water Rights Program Manager at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority. Fleck characterized the tone of the memo as “strikingly worded” and he’s right. The authorities at the city water utility are concerned about their influence in the remediation process and have actively termed the plan as “disconnected from the stated goal of protecting drinking water and the aquifer and [further] undermine the Water Authority’s ability to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water.”
Fleck concludes that this communication signals a breakdown in the relationship between the US Air Force, the N.M. Environment Department and the city water utility. The relationship between these three stake holders has been notably tense for years since the plume’s discovery and, though it warmed in recent years when the feds and state officials offered the city involvement in the cleanup procedures, it has soured again due to the report generated by the New Mexico Environment Department.
When asked about the criticism of the plan, city water utility spokesperson David Morris told local teevee reporters that it focuses too much on exploring other clean up models and relies on passive, rather than active remediation.
The strategic plan put forward by the state’s environment department calls for “long term sustainability of Albuquerque’s aquifer but notes that the process has created challenges that the team tasked with cleaning the mess up “continues to adapt to,” while noting that at this time, more than 350 million gallons of contaminated groundwater have been treated and re-introduced to the Albuquerque biosphere.
Despite these political difficulties, the aim of the state strategy is still to protect the huge reserve of drinking water that lies just beneath the city. The state Environment Department says it can achieve this goal by implementing a robust monitoring program, continuously monitoring fuel contamination in soil and groundwater, deploy multiple engineered technologies to make the former happen and thereby meet or exceed public requirements.
That’s a lot to lay claim to, especially given a process that’s been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, mis-categorized and occluded from public view over many years, but ultimately taken up by a plethora of government and regulatory agencies. It’s time to put politics aside and really get to work cleaning up a mess that might otherwise ruin life as we know it in Albuquerque. The ABCWUA and other parties must continue to meet to forge a consensus and way forward that takes that vital issue into account.
Public comments regarding the issue and strategies available for finding a non-lethal solution therein are open until April 6 and should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.