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Kirtland AFB Threatens To Limit Media Access Over Our “Cheap-Shot” Coverage. Here Is Our Response.

Ed Williams

We recently published the first two stories in an ongoing series on pollution and the Rio Grande in which we plan to explore a range of topics and issues.

After we published the first story, Small Tribe, Big River: Isleta Eyes Pollution In The Rio Grande, Kirtland spokesperson Eric Elliott emailed us with a series of objections to the story. (Read the full email here.) He wrote that the last paragraph in the story “created a lot of consternation among leadership” at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Kirtland Air Force Base is not alleging any factual inaccuracies in our reporting. While our story focuses on Isleta Pueblo’s complaints about water quality in the river and an upstream wastewater treatment plant, the last paragraph illustrates some other nearby entities that are also discharging pollutants into the Rio Grande watershed.

But the city’s water plant is only one of many nearby sources of pollution that could flow into the Rio Grande, according to the EPA. To name a few: Rio Rancho’s wastewater treatment plant has been in violation of environmental laws for years. The City of Albuquerque has, at times, drained nearly six million times its permitted amount of aluminum into the watershed through stormwater drains, along with lead, PCBs and arsenic. And over the past decade, more than 700 pounds of lead has washed into the Rio Grande watershed from Kirtland Air Force Base.

Kirtland’s Objection: It is unnecessary and inappropriate to include Kirtland Air Force Base in a story that features facilities that are in violation of the Clean Water Act. To do so implies that Kirtland is in violation of that law as well.

Our Response: We did not intend to imply that Kirtland’s lead discharges into the Rio Grande watershed over the past decade were in violation of the Clean Water Act and have made changes to the story to reflect this.

Less than one percent of the lead discharges into the Rio Grande come from sources other than Kirtland Air Force Base, according to the EPA Toxics Release Inventory.

Kirtland’s Objection: There is no context given for Kirtland’s lead discharges. The reported amount, 700 pounds over a decade, is “not as impressive” and “not significant” given the size of Kirtland Air Force Base and given naturally occurring heavy metals in the area.

Our Response: Kirtland Air Force Base is by far the largest single source of lead discharges into the entire Rio Grande watershed, according to data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Kirtland officials told us in interviews that any naturally occurring lead would have had a “miniscule” effect on their lead discharge calculations.

They also stated that water samples used to calculate the lead discharges were taken from outfalls on the base chosen because the contaminants in the samples represent the base’s activities.

Kirtland’s Objection: Given the size of the base, 700 pounds of lead is well within the EPA’s drinking water standards.

Our Response: Our story did not focus on drinking water standards, nor did we report in error that Kirtland’s lead discharges exceed safe drinking water standards.

However, Kirtland is in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for failure to follow monitoring protocols, according to the EPAand the New Mexico Environment Department.

This is a screenshot of Kirtland's federal violations from the EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online website.

Kirtland’s Objection: The story implies that all 700 pounds of Kirtland’s lead discharges over the past decade made it into the Rio Grande.

Our Response: According to the EPA, Kirtland reported more than 700 pounds of lead discharges into “a stream or body of water,” in this case, the Rio Grande. During interviews, Kirtland officials explained that due to drought and low rainfall, storm water runoff from the base only occasionally makes it into the river itself.

We stand by our original reporting that Kirtland Air Force Base is one of many sources of pollution that “could flow into the Rio Grande” and that over the past decade, more than 700 pounds of lead from Kirtland Air Force Base “washed into the Rio Grande watershed.”

Kirtland’s Objection: The reporter should have known better than to include the information about Kirtland’s lead discharges in his story, because Kirtland officials provided interviews, a tour of base facilities and information about the base’s discharges. Kirtland officials may not respond to KUNM requests for information or interviews “if all [they] can expect is an unwarranted cheap-shot in return.”

Our Response: We are a news organization and our responsibility is to the public. We do not produce news content “in return” for access to public officials—or any sources for that matter.

We stand by our reporting. Our story is part of a series on pollution and the Rio Grande, and we stand by our decision to report Kirtland’s lead discharges into the Rio Grande watershed.

We are always open to receiving critical feedback on our stories. We will make corrections when they are warranted. No correction was warranted in this case.

Going forward, we expect Kirtland to provide the information that we request for our reporting. We also expect Kirtland officials to be available for interviews.

We hope that Kirtland officials will work with us to provide meaningful information and analysis for our reporting. After all, their responsibility is to the public as well.

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.
Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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