From this perspective, the Sandia and Manzano Mountains seem miniscule, their loftiness erased by miles and miles of barren mesa dotted with brutalist architecture. The hum of activity around here is palpable and vibrates loudly as jets fly in and out of the Sunport and the adjacent base, as military folks go about their work and aviation fuel on the order of thousands of gallons is dispensed each day to fuel-hungry sky machines.
On the north side of Gibson, a few blocks inside one of the sparse neighborhoods north of Kirtland, there is a vegetable garden. Using land donated by the city, SWOP took a barren field and has made it lush.
Using water from a well that may very well have been exposed to the Kirtland Bulk Fuel Facility spill, raspberry plants blossom and fat yellow squash grows ripe on the vine.
All of this seems very promising to the man I am to meet at the garden. His name is Juan Reynosa and he’s the Deputy Director at SouthWest Organizing Project, a longtime player in Burque’s community political apparatus.
But besides being proud of the garden—and of the long history that SWOP has in this community providing sustainable solutions to a variety of local issues—Reynosa is worried about what’s going on next door.
Officials at the base have never been completely transparent with community regarding the fuel spill, Reynosa tells me. We agree that there have been times when the local version of our nation’s military-industrial complex has presented itself in a defensive, if not outright hostile manner, in its dealing with citizens who are concerned about the effects of the ongoing seepage of jet fuel into the city’s water table.
In fact, as recently as 2017, officials at Kirtland determined that civilian interest in the matter was not sufficient to call for a community oversight board. This essential belief became the basic modus operandi for a Republican municipal administration that did little to move remediation efforts forward.
Of course, things have gotten better, I remind Mr. Reynosa as we walk through the garden picking produce as Weekly Alibi Staff Photographer Eric Williams snaps photos.
But it’s clearly an ongoing struggle for Reynosa and for SWOP and their many working class constituents living in the valley and the mesa, far removed from the arcadian foothills to the north and east.
Along with another New Mexico non-profit Voices For Children, SWOP recently sent the US Air Force notice of their intent to sue the military branch and the Department of Defense. Joining in on the effort, State Senator Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) and State Representative G. Andres Romero (D-Albuquerque) have lent their support to claims that the Bulk Fuel Facility spill is responsible for an “imminent and substantial” threat to public health and the environment.
As we spent the morning walking through the garden and later back at SWOP headquarters on the edge of downtown Burque, Reynosa and I chatted about the spill, its effect on the land and community in the vicinity of Burque as well as the long range mission of SWOP and other community organizations when it comes to defending la tierra, the water that flows through and beneath it and the people who dwell upon it.
Reynosa’s commitment and passion were evident as we spoke; but so was his focus on his community, still troubled by events and activities shaping the world around them.
Weekly Alibi: Thanks for joining me today. Could you please tell our readers about the SouthWest Organizing Project?
Juan Reynosa: The SouthWest Organizing Project is 39 years old. We’re a social justice organization that works on multiple issues. We definitely have a lot of our work in the roots of environmental justice and working with communities to protect public health and ensure that they have clean drinking water, clean air to breathe and be able to maintain their water and land rights—that last thing is something that’s really important in New Mexico. Historically, a lot of people have tried to steal from us, to leverage for their own benefit. Among our projects, we’ve registered young people of color to vote in the ’80s; we had a big fight with Intel (over water use) in the early aughts. We have a youth program, a feminism program. We have a project called Feed the Hood, which is a food justice program, too. And a cultural engagement program as well. All of that is rooted in the community we serve. We take our directives from the community. We deal with real people, on their level. While we do policy work, our policy is based on organizing work we’ve done in the community. We want something better for all of us. We stand in solidarity with a lot of people facing similar issues around groundwater contamination, like that being witnessed at the Kirtland Jet Fuel Spill.
What other cities have you heard from regarding groundwater contamination?
Some of our folks at Southwest Workers Union in San Antonio have been dealing with that, in their city, for decades. We hear our allies having to fight fights against military bases because of the contamination they produce.
I’d say that SWOP’s been aware of this issue and has been trying to do something with the community for a number of years. If you look outside, in our courtyard at the office, we have a mural that some of our youth did in the 1990s. There’s a picture of Kirtland Air Force Base there, marked as poison. While it may seem like the overarching issue is a new occurrence, our community and communities across Albuquerque have been dealing with this issue for a long time. We’ve done a lot of organizing in the International District [where the jet fuel plume is centered]. We do food justice work in that area. We also have our Feed the Hood garden. As you can see, it’s right across from Kirtland Air Force Base.
Could the location of the garden be problematic, given the size and location of the spill?
Well, that’s the concern the community is currently raising. They are within an area where there is no access to healthy, fresh food or grocery stores. We’re trying to help fill that gap with community gardens. But then we hear about how we have this toxic plume of jet fuel in our water supply and of course, we’ve become concerned. We’re growing food and using city well water. Some members of the community wonder if we’re raising crops that are going to have poison in them. Those are valid concerns. Not all of us are scientists who understand how toxic plumes work. But on a baseline level, we know that having a toxic substance in our drinking water [like jet fuel] is terrible. We have to act fast and stop dragging our feet.
I read that your organization, in conjunction with another community organization and some members of the New Mexico Legislature, is considering taking legal action in the matter. Can you tell our readers about that process?
Well, as long as we, as a community, and the public have been notified about the jet fuel spill, the [NM] Environment Department and the Air Force have set up quarterly meetings with the public. When those first started happening, there were tons of community members out there voicing their concerns, saying things like, “I used to work for the Air Force in the ’70s and I smelled this fuel back then.” They were really talking about ways to clean the mess up, but as the years went by, we saw a lot of the citizens who wanted to be involved start to fall off because the process became exclusionary. It became them [the Air Force] not being receptive to community feedback.
Right. I remember attending some of those meetings. I remember going to one in 2009 or 2010 and basically the Air Force told those gathered that, “We’re the Air Force and we’ll do what we want and thank you coming to our meeting.”
As a member of the community, you live there with a lot of concerns. And when you go to these meetings and you don’t have those concerns addressed, it’s a problem. The Air Force and others kept doing what they thought was best. But that’s not good enough. What we’ve noticed is that there are no firm deadlines for the cleanup. With anything like this, you would want to set a real plan in place, it seems. This is our drinking water, after all. We need more from the Air Force, including cleaning this mess up. We want the process to be sped up, we want accountability when deadlines aren’t met. And we want actual community involvement, something like a community advisory board. [In the past] things like that have been negotiated through consent decrees where people from the community can actually sit on a board and have real conversations and get real time information about the clean up. Right now, it seems like these quarterly meetings are happening just so the Air Force can say they’re doing something. But our community has been discouraged from participating.
I recall news reports from a about two years back, before Keller’s or Lujan Grisham’s election, that maintained the Air Force had determined that there was not enough public interest in the issue to form a citizen’s advisory board. People in the Berry administration we’re convinced that Burqueños weren’t interested. Now that’s changed, and it’s a change that’s reflected in the City Council, the County Commission and the Water Utility Board. Are they doing enough to move this project forward?
This is under the purview of the New Mexico Environment Department and the Air Force. They’re supposed to be separate entities. The Environment Department should hold the Air Force accountable, pushing them to clean it up. That was part of the problem we noted previously. During the Martinez administration, no one could really tell the difference between the Environment Department and the Air Force at these meetings. That was a big problem, when one organization is supposed to be holding the other accountable. We can’t just be all buddy-buddy with each other! Nothing gets done that way. It seem like there is a noticeable separation now, an eagerness to do something better and faster. But the way I see the city and county becoming more involved is to have our elected officials advocate with the community and start really pushing for a cleanup that fits the needs we have right now. The sooner we start cleaning up this plume, the better. Enough studies have been done. We know the source of the plume and the center of it. Let’s start extracting soil, let’s put more monitoring wells into service. We need to move the plume away from production wells that are providing water to the city.
What legal action is SWOP contemplating?
The legal action is to force the Air Force to create a clear and firm clean up timeline. They would be held accountable for that process. In the past, if they missed deadlines, nothing happened.
Except more fuel seepage?
Right. It’s easy to not do anything if you’re not being held accountable. We want a real plan in place. We want a faster timeline for the clean up process and we want community involvement, past the quarterly meetings. What they’ve done now is to host meetings every three months, but you know, there’s no teeth there.
Yeah, they give a PowerPoint presentation and then call for questions from the audience; then the milk and cookies come out.
Exactly. Citizens can say something, but there is no follow-up. Citizens have to wait three more months to even get a response regarding their questions. Oftentimes there is no response. We really feel that there needs to be something set in place to clean it up now.
How about the current pump and treat processes that we’ve all read about?
While I do appreciate the current operations, they’re [the Air Force] saying, “Oh, we’ve treated hundreds of millions of gallons of water.” But if you look at the bigger picture, they’ve only pulled out a very small amount of the actual hazardous substances in the ground and in the water. It takes a lot to treat water successfully. They’ll have to treat billions of gallons of water to get to the source. We need to be paying attention to that; not how much water they’ve treated, but how much actual pollutants are in our water. There is a stark difference in those two situations. We want to see a lot more of the toxic substance [jet fuel] being cleaned up, which means more pump and treat stations.
Have you heard from citizens, members of your organization or people from the city in general who feel that their health has been affected by the fuel spill?
Yeah. I mean many of the folks who are part of the lawsuit are people that live in and around the plume. They’ve lived in that community for years. Some of them have lived in the same house [in the Southeast quadrant of the city] for generations. They’re raising their children and their grandchildren there, over the plume. Some of them are teachers, some work at the community center. We’ve had people who’ve called SWOP and said, “Hey, when I take my son over to his grandparents’ house [in the affected area] and he breaks out in hives.” While we can’t prove any correlation, no studies have been done about the effects of this fuel spill. It seems like there is something there, and we need to find out exactly what that is. We’re doing all of this with impetus from the community. We’ve had a ton of feedback from the community, and obviously they are concerned.
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.