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Kirtland Spill Could Be Much Larger

UPDATED 4:30pm:  State environmental officials say a massive jet fuel spill threatening Albuquerque's water supply could be much larger than originally thought. Officials have previously estimated the decades-old spill from Kirtland Air Force base to be about 8 million gallons.

But state geologist William Moats, who made the original calculations, recently estimated the spill could be as large as 24 million gallons -- or twice the size of the spill from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska in 1989.

From The Albuquerque Journal:

The new calculation by Environment Department geologist Will Moats was brought to light by Dave McCoy of Citizen Action, an activist group based in Albuquerque that has been pushing the Air Force and other government agencies to act more quickly to deal with the problem. “I think they’ve got to do more than they’re doing right now,” McCoy said in an interview Tuesday. McCoy said the higher estimate suggests the fuel spill could be significantly harder to clean up than previously believed. Moats, part of the Environment Department team working on the spill, did a calculation in 2010 that yielded a widely used estimate of 8 million gallons. In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Moats said that when new data from more extensive Air Force testing of the extent of soil contamination was plugged into the formula, it yielded an estimate of 24 million gallons. In the same interview, Moats’ boss, Jim Davis, cautioned that the 24 million number was just a crude estimate, and did not represent the agency’s official position about how much fuel was in the ground.


Davis says he is confident it can be remediated, no matter what the size.

Update: Air Force officials say they have been burning fuel vapor off the spill site for 8 years, but Dave McCoy counters that remedy is not effective.  He says the public is being given incorrect information.

"The effect of that is to delay effective regulatory action, delay expenditures of money, create false hope, allow face saving for the politicians and the military and the public shouldn't be fooled by this any longer," McCoy says.  "Our drinking water and our health and our finances are at high risk given the size and the depth of this plume." Albuquerque officials will need to build a water treatment plant to clean it up, he adds. 

But Tom Berardinelli, Chief of Staff for the 377th Air Base Wing at Kirtland, maintains the new estimate changes nothing.  "An amount, although it may seem interesting, is speculative," Berardinelli says. "There is no real way of measuring what's there.  And knowing an amount does absolutely nothing to contribute to how this is remediated."

It's information about where the fuel has dissolved into the aquifer and where the thickest layers of contamination are located that Berardinelli says will make a difference for the clean-up operation.  It includes expanding a network of test wells and beefing up the system that burns the vapor from the fuel. 

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
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