A pump-and-treat system is the main way that Kirtland Air Force Base has been cleaning up a jet fuel spill they discovered back in the ‘90s. For years, the treated water has gone either straight back into the aquifer or to the base’s golf course. Now, Kirtland is seeking permission for a third option—to dump water into the nearby Tijeras Arroyo.
KUNM got an update at a public meeting on base last week.
It's early evening, and one of the season’s first big monsoon rains is flooding the road near Kirtland’s groundwater treatment plant.
“I guess Mother Nature isn’t cooperating, with respect to photos,” says Scott Clark, Kirtland’s restoration program manager, standing at the big open garage-door entrance. He points toward the spot where a pipe will open into Tijeras Arroyo, a wash that meanders more than 15 miles from the East Mountains to the Rio Grande.
At the open house, a few community members check out the plant where water contaminated with ethylene dibromide is pumped out of the aquifer and pushed through a series of filters until it’s safe to drink by federal standards.
This time of year, Clark says, that treated water keeps the golf course green, “but in the winter we have an old drinking water well that we converted into an injection well, so we can actually inject back into the aquifer.”
They’re looking to get another injection well up and running, says Clark, in case the first breaks down. In the meantime, they’ve applied for a special permit with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to discharge into the arroyo. He says it’s a backup option they’ll use sparingly, so as not to lose too much water to evaporation.
“If we use it, I can promise – and this is an Air Force position – that we’re gonna try to shut it off as quickly as we can,” said Clark. “I really can’t foresee an issue where we would have to use it that often.”
Clark expects any water they do release will soak into the ground or evaporate miles before the arroyo reaches the Rio Grande in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
“When I heard ‘Tijeras,’ it kind of piqued my interest,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty, whose district includes the East Mountains where the Tijeras Arroyo begins.
When she heard about Kirtland’s permit application, she says it brought up concerns for the natural and cultural resources along the arroyo upstream and downstream from the base. “There are archeological sites on the east end, and on the west end, it would flow down past the Valle del Oro Open Space Area that we have, and then flow to the Rio Grande,” said Pyskoty, “and I just want to make absolutely sure there would be no polluting of any kind of any of those resources.”
Pyskoty raised those concerns during the public comment period earlier this month. It’s now up to the EPA define how much water Kirtland is allowed to discharge into the arroyo, and when.
Bruce Thomson, professor emeritus of civil engineering at UNM, says putting treated water into the arroyo seems fine. He’s been keeping a close eye on the Kirtland jet fuel cleanup for years.
“There are no problems with this,” said Thomson. “As long as there is a monitoring program to confirm the performance of the water treatment process, the environmental impact is negligible.”
Thomson does have one big concern about the project, and it echoes something other stakeholders have been saying lately – that the Air Force isn’t doing enough to work with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, the agency in charge of Albuquerque’s drinking water.
“It’s important that the Water Utility Authority participate in all the dialogue, the planning, the review and the implementation,” said Thomson.
Water Utility Authority staff have said they no longer have a full seat at the table in decision-making processes. Kirtland officials disagree, saying staff are invited to technical meetings.
At last week’s open house, Scott Clark, Kirtland’s restoration program manager, acknowledged their troubled history with this project.
“It’s taken on a life of its own, this project and this spill, and we’re not oblivious to that,” said Clark. “We’re behind a fenceline that people don’t have access to, and we have a plume that’s left base. So for us, we need people to have some confidence in the work that we’re doing, which is why we had the open house.”
Kirtland also faces criticism from a group of advocates and lawmakers who are threatening to sue to get the Air Force to move faster on the cleanup.
The EPA expects to issue a decision on Kirtland’s Tijeras Arroyo permit by mid-August.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.