First detected in the early 1990s, the spill could potentially wreak havoc with county and city drinking water. As reported by Weekly Alibi’s news department in 2013, the spill contains traces of the chemical ethylene dibromide, an organobromine with acute toxicity that is particularly dangerous to humans because it can be inhaled or absorbed into the body through the skin. EDB is a carcinogen and exposure to high levels also causes severe organ damage.
Recent efforts to monitor and contain the spill—including poisonous EDB—have made notable progress. This has especially been the case after Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Environment Department under the leadership of James C. Kenney and Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland stepped in, according to Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins.
Meanwhile, activists ranging from the SouthWest Organizing Project and New Mexico Voices for Children to two state Senators, a state representative and three locals citizens impacted by the spill are threatening to sue the US Air Force over the “imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment” posed by the still-flowing fuel spill.
In the midst of that progress and contention though, transparency and inclusivity issues continue to be problematic. That’s the take of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Board. This important local governance committee is composed of members of the Albuquerque City Council, the Bernalillo County Commission—including Hart Stebbins—as well as the mayor of the city of Albuquerque, Tim Keller. Pablo R. Rael serves in an “ex officio” capacity on the same governing board.
The function of the board, and essentially of the water utility authority itself, is to provide Albuquerque and Bernalillo County residents with potable water. Besides assuring responsive customer service, the mission of the water authority is to “provide reliable, high quality, affordable and sustainable water supply, wastewater collection treatment, and reuse systems” and to “support healthy, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable community.”
Among those issues, the letter asks for clarification on several key aspects of the remediation project. The points addressed in the letter include the timeline of the project, the target capture zone (the geographic locations in town where water and fuel are being captured and treated), the project budget, the operation of the current pump-and-treat system, treatment of the source area (the actual fuel facility on base) and data gaps in the reporting of chemical characteristics of the contamination plumes.
The letter was signed by the chair of the Water Utility Board, Debbie O’Malley (who is also a BernCo Commisioner) and ABCWUA board member and BernCo Commisioner Hart Stebbins.
In order to better understand these issues—as well as to check up on the progress made in remediation efforts—Weekly Alibi chatted with Maggie Hart Stebbins this past weekend.
Weekly Alibi: Hi. Do you have few minutes to discuss recent developments concerning the Kirtland jet fuel spill?
Maggie Hart Stebbins: Yes, I do.
Excellent. Could you please tell our readers about the letter you recently sent to the US Air Force and speak to the concerns raised in the letter?
Sure. But first let me give you a little bit of history. The water authority’s engagement in this issue really started in 2009. Since that time, the water authority has invested about a million dollars in investigating and monitoring the Air Force’s work.
Where does that oversight money come from?
From our ratepayers. The water utility authority is an independent authority that only collects revenue from ratepayers.
Why is this fuel spill issue a priority for ratepayers, citizens in general and the surrounding environment?
This issue has been a priority because the most significant impact of failure to remediate is going to be on people who live in this community, people who need drinking water. And the Water Utility Authority is tasked with providing clean drinking water. The location of the Bulk Fuels Facility spill is unfortunately located in the most productive and the cleanest part of the entire regional aquifer. As soon as it [the fuel spill] came to our attention [at the Water Utilility Board] we realized it was a major concern. We felt that staying on top of this was a good investment for our community.
Over the years, especially prior to the election of a state Democratic administration, there seems to have been a lot of push and pull between the Air Force, the state of New Mexico, the county and the city about how to proceed with remediation and also who knows what with regards to the remediation project’s focus and outcome. But your letter brings up substantial issues with all of that. Discuss.
I would not say that the city has had a very active role. Nor has the county. The work has been done through the Water Utility Authority. Under the previous administration of R.J. Berry, particularly, there was not a lot of interest in pushing the Air Force to aggressively remediate.
Has that situation changed?
I would say that the water authority is the lead agency that is overseeing the remediation efforts along with the Environment Department under our new governor.
So have those relationships improved, or is it still business as usual?
Again, there’s a long history there. The New Mexico Environment Department under Susana Martinez was not particularly active on these issues, except for a period of about two years when Ryan Flynn was the Environment Secretary. He was very engaged, he was very interested in pushing the Air Force to do even more. During that time with Flynn, there was a commitment ... and it also happened that our current governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who happened to be a member of Congress. [among those three parties] a lot of work got done. There was also a tremendous investment on behalf of the Air Force at that time, too. That’s when the pump and treat program was funded. At that time, the Water Utility Authority was welcomed as a full partner at technical working groups meetings. Our technical experts had a say ... in making major remediation decisions.
How does the letter address the concerns we’ve been discussing?
Our letter, which was mailed on June 26, 2019, reflects a concern that the Air Force had become less transparent in terms of sharing information about how the [remediation] efforts were progressing and, consequently, that it’s been hard for the Water Utility Authority to evaluate some of the claims of progress made by the Air Force.
Some of those claims include the Air Force maintaining that 86 percent of the ethylene dibromide—a potent carcinogen—mass at the heart of the spill has been dealt with through the interim pump and treat program. Can we talk about that?
Sure. The Air Force has done amazing work in installing and operating the pump and treat system. I applaud them for that effort. However, since the Water Authority is no longer getting timely data, it’s impossible for us to verify such claims. Many of us that have been involved with this for a long time have taken the approach that we want to trust but verify. Until about two years ago, we were in a position to get data as soon as it became available. That’s not happening anymore.
How often are you getting reports on the progress of the remediation efforts?
I believe that the data is now being made available to the Water Authority only at the end of the year. Now, we recently received a letter from the state’s new Environment Secretary, welcoming the Water Authority as a full participant in this [entire] process. They agreed to share whatever data they get, as soon as they get it. So, that’s an important step [forward] ... We’re not the regulators, we’re not the regulated party, but we are clearly a stakeholder in this discussion. We can represent the public’s interest and we can do that best when our experts are able to get timely access to the data that is being collected.
Have you received a response from the Air Force?
No and I don’t expect a response for a month or more because a formal letter, at this level, basically has to go through many other levels of approval. There’s another issue in this letter, though, that I believe is really important.
Okay, what’s that issue?
It’s about the discussion of interim measures—interim measures are what the Air Force does to eliminate the immediate threat to public health—the pump and treat system in particular. The pump and treat system is designed to keep the ethylene dibromide from reaching drinking water wells.
Is that chemical still leaking into the ground? How much of a threat really remains?
The ethylene dibromide is a constituent of jet fuel that was used in the 1940s and 1950s. It hasn’t been part of the jet fuel formula for many, many years. But it does easily dissolve into water. But the length of the presence of ethylene dibromide [in the plume] and the fact that it is easily dissolvable is an issue. When you ask if the chemical is going to be constantly leaking into the groundwater, the answer is absolutely yes. The ethylene dibromide seems to be locked up in the soil. It’s sort of dissolving out [into the water] as the water table reaches it.
Let me get this straight: Is the pump and treat program merely evaluative, just a beginning point?
Nope. Pump and treat means actually cleaning up the ethylene dibromide. Doing that was a very important initial request made to the Air Force to take care of the immediate threat to the drinking water wells. And when I say immediate threat, I mean that the EDB plume was moving toward the drinking water wells. They have done that, according to their evaluations. And we hope that it’s true.
So, how will the program really change then, if that evaluation and the pump and treat program itself are found to be verifiably accurate?
There are two pieces to the whole remediation process. One of the interim measures, that is the pump and treat system, that is capturing the immediate threat to our drinking water. But there continues to be a second part to the remediation process that needs attention. That’s figuring out how to remediate the source area. The source area is on base, where the fuel is leaking into the ground. That source area is going to continue to contribute contaminants to the water supply for a long time. There’s been fuel leaking through 500 feet of soil down to the water table. And that fuel continues to be in the soil, sort of dripping into the groundwater. That’s step two in the process. Right now they [the US Air Force] are evaluating how they can clean up the storage area.
Okay, I get it now. It sounds like this is a long-term problem that is going to take years, even decades to get a handle on. Are you hopeful that the Air Force and the state will continue to want to work with the ABCWUA in finding solutions to the fuel spill?
Yes. I met with the new commander of Kirtland Air Force Base last week and I am very encouraged by his willingness to engage with the community on this issue. There are few things that really give me hope. One is this new commander, Colonel David S. Miller. The others are our new environment secretary, James C. Kenney, who in combination with our new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, have focused on this issue for many years. I attribute 90 percent of the success on this project to Lujan Grisham because she stepped in as soon as she was elected to Congress. She forced the Air Force to take this issue seriously. She’s responsible for the investment of federal dollars that have been appropriated to fund the remediation. Those things have made all the difference. Now we have her as governor, overseeing the Environment Department, and Secretary Kenney could not be a better person to be overseeing the remediation project. We’re now in a position to really move forward.
Just to summarize, why is this such an important county and city issue?
Elected officials and policy makers on the Water Authority Board have always seen our number one priority as protecting the water supply. One thing I'd like to add is that our Congresswoman, Deb Haaland, has demonstrated an awesome commitment to the Bulk Fuels Facilty remediation project. She's made this a priority for her office and been pressing the Air Force to be more transparent about data and funding.
Ultimately, we see ourselves as allies of the Air Force and of the state Environment Department because we all have the same end goals and again, that comes down to protecting our precious water supply. The Air Force wants to do that, so does the NMED. We’ve been collaborative in that process but we also want to make sure that they’re doing the right thing.
Note: On Thursday, July 25, from 5pm until 7pm, the US Air Force will host an open house of its groundwater Treatment System Facility. For more information on this important public event, please call Kirtland Air Force Base Public Affairs at 505-846-5991 or email 377ABW.PA@us.af.mil.