Okay, so no one got the joke. The reason I began what turned out to be a massive research project was because I was reading about the aforementioned fuel spill a few weeks ago while listening to the final Beastie Boys album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two . While dancing around mi chante trying to shed 50 pounds that need to disappear if I am to become an old man, I thought it would be an interesting thing to mash-up the two.
I was drinking a lot of water at the time—proper hydration is super important in the summer, viejos—and wondering why the fuel spill was still such a potent issue. It was like they needed to form a committee, or something like that, to deal with the situation, its history and its ultimate outcome, I reckoned; I imagined an organization where elected and appointed government officials, military types and community members could all get together and talk about what’s happening right now with the fuel plume and how the remediation project is going.
My project turned into a multi-source, multi-narrative event with gobs of scientific information to read, dozens of people to talk with and opinions galore. After Weekly Alibi published the second in this series—last week, in case you haven’t read it yet—the newspaper received a plethora of calls from folks, both saluting the bravery of folks at the SouthWest Organizing Project and questioning the statements made and the stance taken by the longtime association of community organizers and activists.
One writer sent us a letter, to inform readers that ethylene dibromide—one of the more sketchy components of the fuel spill—was not nearly as dangerous as has been portrayed. That person followed up with numerous phone calls; when he realized I understood a good portion of the science behind the spill and its consequent clean-up, he told me he wanted to meet with me to discuss the issue in person.
I demurred, but the conversation I had set me on the path of further investigation. Certainly the views expressed in the first part of this series by Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority Board member Maggie Hart Stebbins reflected the realpolitik surrounding the issue. The views expressed by SWOP the following week provided a consistent and conscientious contrast to those positions and policies.
But surely there was more to the story. In fact, when I called the office of Public Affairs office over at Kirtland Air Force Base—to tell them I would attend their open house featuring its Groundwater Treatment Facility, an awesome conversation ensued.
One polite and professional Public Information Officer thought I should definitely visit and evaluate the system for myself. The Air Force had a significant stake in the project and they wanted to tell their side of the story.
On Friday afternoon, with huge thunderstorms hovering over the mountains and metro area, I drove out to Kirtland Air Force Base to take a look. While I was there, I met with several individuals. They included Kathryn D. Lynnes, the Senior Remediation Program Manager, from the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure; Scott Clark, one of the scientists from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center that runs the treatment facility; concerned citizen and Bernalillo County Treasurer Nancy M. Bearce and New Mexico Environment Department PIO Maddy Hayden.
Somewhat ironically—and though citizens of all stripes came out on a very rainy day for this event—community activists and organizers from SWOP and Voices for Children as well as representatives of the local legislators quoted as being part of a pending lawsuit against the Air Force were not on site for this public open house.
Here is the story the folks I met told as water from the ground commingled with water from the sky on the day the US Air Force opened the gates to demonstrate their side of a very complex narrative.
Weekly Alibi: Kate, we’ve spoken to various folks about the fuel spill, and we want to present a balanced view. We know some substantial progress has been made; tell our readers about your perspective.
Kathryn D. Lynnes: There was an additive in aviation gas called ethylene dibromide. It’s very water soluble. And bacteria don’t like to eat it. That’s the plume that left the base, north of Ridgecrest [Boulevard]. It’s just ethylene dibromide at a very low concentration.
Is that chemical mixed in with fuel?
No, it is not. There’s never been a pancake of fuel on the base; that’s never existed. The ethylene dibromide is at a super-low parts per billion, but the clean-up standard is .05 parts per billion. So that’s what we’re capturing and treating.
So is the concentration of ethylene dibromide significantly below the clean-up standard?
It’s about equal to that standard. But that’s still very low. A lot of people come out here and say, well you’ve pumped 680 million gallons but all you’ve extracted is 150 grams of EDB. That’s because there’s very little down there. The plume is 500 feet down and doesn’t generate any vapors. There’s never been free product out there.
What about the vapor extraction units you all installed in 2008 and 2009?
We haven’t had those out here for a while. We did have a soil vapor extraction system that we ran for 12 years. But that was directed toward Bullhead Park and towards the Base. It’s never been part of the [adjacent] neighborhood. There’s 480 feet of dry soil above the water table and then the contaminated groundwater below it. We pulled vapors from the source up with suction and treated them. The vapors go through a catalytic converter, just like in a car. And then it’s gone. We’ve removed an equivalent of 750,000 gallons of fuel using that process. In the interview with SWOP, they were talking about soil contamination at the surface. The only place that ever really existed was in the actual fueling area. In 1999, we pressure-tested the lines at the facility and found they had holes in them. There was clearly a fuel leak there and we took out 5,000 tons of soil and took that to an appropriate facility. There’s never been any other soil contamination from the leak.
Is the fuel leak a continuing event?
No. Absolutely not. That source was shut off; it was disconnected. There were no other leaks in the system. Then, we built a state-of-the-art system where everything is above ground or is in lined trenches. It’s inspectable.
A lot of people have come to believe that there’s a massive amount of fuel and other pollutants under the ground due to the spill. Discuss.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there, like there’s 24 million gallons that were spilled. It was not 24 million gallons. We don’t know how much it is; the records are old and the type of leak made it really hard to calculate a total. We now believe that between two and six million gallons of jet fuel were spilled. We did have some areas where we had some free product in the water, but when we did the soil vapor extraction, we also used a process called bioslurping to suck that up. I’ve worked on projects in the Midwest where we had 20 feet of free product above the groundwater. We’ve never had anything like that here. There was never floating fuel above the water. There’re very low concentrations of EDB—never enough to generate vapors under anyone’s house.
What’s really the issue, then?
Sometimes, I ask myself that. In all of our public presentations and our stakeholder meetings, we’ve talked about this. Sometimes I don’t know where that misinformation is coming from. All we can do is share information. There is still contamination on the site and in the groundwater, and we’re doing a lot of work to figure out the nature and extent of the contamination, as well as the best way to clean it all up.
And that contamination is only on Base?
A little of it is under Bullhead Park. We’re continuously taking core samples down to the water table to see where fuel is hung up in the soil layers, in the dry parts, because as the water table rises, we want to know what’s down there and it starts dissolving.
At that point, Lynnes asked me to follow her and tour the actual facility. On the way in, I ran into Bernalillo County Treasurer Nancy M. Bearce, a longtime participant in community discussions about the spill and its consequences. She told me that her involvement was based on her long-term residency in the adjacent La Mesa Neighborhood.
Weekly Alibi: Why did you become interested in following this issue?
Nancy M. Bearce: When this was first reported, my husband and I started coming to the public meetings since 2000 to find out more. Of course, our concern has been the wells that we are close to, the Ridgecrest wells. They’re the purest in the county and are relied upon to mix with the other wells to keep the arsenic levels down. So we didn’t want anything to happen. We know the Water Authority handles water issues for three counties, in the most urban part of New Mexico, all the way from Placitas to Belen. That was a concern to us.
Do you think progress is being made in the remediation process?
I think we—myself and others—some in surrounding neighborhood associations, really had to talk to some people back in 2008 to say they weren’t doing much clean-up, they’re just measuring the spill, and we need to start cleaning up because it looks like the plume is moving. That’s when we called on our Congresswoman, Michelle Lujan Grisham. She really spearheaded our concerns and said, “Let’s start the clean-up; we don’t have to wait.” At that time, we also started to educate people because some people think that underneath us is this huge cavern filled with water; that’s not true of our aquifer. Contrast that with now, 2019, and I believe we are light years ahead.
So I entered the water treatment plant at Kirtland, a place filled with water tanks, filters, pipes, computers and scientists. I struck up a conversation with Scott Clark, one of the big brains behind the whole installation. Here is what he told me, quietly, scientifically and assuredly.
Weekly Alibi: What’s the background on this project, Scott?
Scott Clark: This was a really slow leak over a long period of time. It ended up getting down to the groundwater. EDB was an additive in leaded fuel. Leaded fuel was phased out in 1975. The EDB was in Avgas, now we use JP-4 and JP-8. They’re sorta like diesel fuel and Avgas was mostly used in propeller-driven planes. Anyway, in 2015, we put in the first two extraction wells. We’ve got 160 groundwater monitoring wells. We look at the nature of the soil in those areas and what we realized—with the help of geologists—is that we had an ancient river channel at a depth of 450 feet. That whole area is a preferential flow channel; that’s why the plume took off to the North. The plume was following that channel. What we realized, this group of scientists and engineers—and we brought in people from everywhere to evaluate the situation in toto—is that we needed to put some extraction wells right in the middle of the plume. The idea is to have the plume collapse in on itself, right in the middle. We don’t want to put those extraction wells further out because we don’t want to pull dirty water across clean water. The idea is to use that preferential flow channel to our advantage.
What about the water table [subsurface materials and soil that are saturated with water]?
Well since 2015, we have seen a rise in the water table. We’ve seen a 15-foot rise in the water table in some areas in the city, which is a good thing and is due to our state’s water conservation efforts. But what we’re also seeing is a cone of depression and a full capture of the plume. We’ve arrested the northern flow of the plume. This extraction system has worked better than we thought it would. It has started to work quicker; I think that’s a byproduct of the water table rising. Every quarter, we gauge these wells, too. We get the groundwater elevation data.
But that water is not like an underground lake, right?
It’s all mixed in with the soil. The thing is, all this [contamination] is lighter than water, so it floats to the surface instead of sinking to the bottom. We know where the plume is and we know where it isn’t. Right now, we’re not really seeing the plume move.
Should people in the city be worried about using the water in this area for their gardens, for drinking and cooking?
No. The EDB concentrations are really low. And EDB is kind of a weird chemical. It’s totally water-soluble. It dissolves in water. It doesn’t readily adsorb to soil—it doesn’t stick to soils. It doesn’t readily biodegrade, so bacteria don’t want to eat it. That’s why a contaminant that was pre-1975 is still in the groundwater near the leak.
Why do you think that there is so much misinformation about the nature and danger of the spill being propagated? There’re a lot of people who see the spill as an imminent public health crisis. Why is that?
I know why. Originally when we had the public meetings, people would ask the question, “How big is it?” and we didn’t have all the wells in at that time, so the answer was “We don’t know.”
At the time, folks were saying that 24 million gallons of fuel were spilled.
The state has since walked that number back. We’re thinking it was more like two to six million gallons. We’ll have a more concise idea in November, we have a report due where we characterize the nature and extent of the plume to the state, then. Our first report covered 1999 through 2015; the latest one will cover 2016 through the present. We’re working on that right now, analyzing coring data from the entire area.
So if citizens want to know what’s really going on, all they have to do is ask?
That’s why we had this open house. I’ve given more tours of this facility than I can count. If people are legitimately worried, ask to call on the base, and we’ll show you around. We’re all environmentalists here, scientists and engineers. We’re working hard to solve this problem. We have confidence in the work we’re doing.