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State, Local Officials Raise Concerns About Kirtland Fuel Spill Cleanup

Hannah Colton / KUNM
Mike Richardson samples drinking water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority's Burton Well #5.

To hear Kirtland Air Force Base officials tell it, the cleanup of a decades-old jet fuel spill in Southeast Albuquerque is going great. Their pump-and-treat system is shrinking a major swath of the pollution in the city’s aquifer. But there’s a long history of distrust between the military and the community on this project, and there’s still a lot more to clean up.

Mike Richardson carried a red cooler full of water sampling equipment into a small building filled with mechanical buzz. Richardson is a water quality supervisor with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA). We’re in the International District, at one of the seven drinking water wells around Kirtland Air Force Base. His team tests them every month for contaminants.

They’re the first ones that are gonna see anything, so those are the ones we sample for that,” he said.

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
ABCWUA's Burton Well #5 is just north of Whittier Elementary School.

The jet fuel started leaking into the ground near here as early as the 1950s. The leak was discovered and stopped in the late 1990s, but it released a bunch of toxic components. The one that’s caused the most concern is called ethylene dibromide (EDB), but there are others, too. None of the contaminants from the plume have ever been detected in Albuquerque’s drinking water wells.

Richardson said everything looked normal on this day, as it always does.  That’s thanks to the pump-and-treat system that Kirtland started running in 2015. Base officials say they’ve removed more than 80 percent of the EDB from the area closest to city water wells.

Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said, if that’s true, that is great news. She is a longtime board member for the ABCWUA. They’ve been keeping a close eye on the Kirtland cleanup for years.

We are not absolutely confident that what they’re telling us is accurate,” Hart Stebbins said.

A few years ago, ABCWUA staff were able to participate in the nitty gritty of the cleanup planning. They’d sit down with base officials and other experts, she said, to decide what sampling data was needed, how to model where the pollution might be, where to drill monitoring wells.

The water utility dedicated a lot of resources to that complicated decision-making process. “It's an art, and it's a science," said Hart Stebbins, "and we have often provided the technical expertise that really helped choose the optimal solution."

But since 2017, Hart Stebbins said, that’s changed. She’s not the only Water Utility Authority official that told us Kirtland is no longer consulting with them before making decisions.

“Our expertise is not really being respected in the process, and that’s a concern,” she said.

The New Mexico Environment Departmentis the regulator for the cleanup. Their chief scientist, Dennis McQuillan, said he doesn’t share the water utility’s concerns about losing a seat at the table, but he does raise a red flag about one particular decision Kirtland made this spring.

“In March, I had asked the Air Force to initiate a discussion about the feasibility of putting in a fifth extraction well,” he said. The extraction wells are the ones carrying contaminated groundwater to that celebrated pump-and-treat system, and McQuillan wants Kirtland to consider drilling another one to pull from a different section of the plume. Kirtland agreed to look into it, but then about a month later announced that the next new extraction well would have to wait until something like 2023, when they complete a final cleanup plan.

McQuillan said that’s not how it’s supposed to work. “You know, we’re the regulator, and we were surprised to hear that. This unilateral declaration doesn’t sit right with us,” he said.

The Air Force’s senior advisor for this cleanup is Kate Lynnes. She said Kirtland is going above and beyond what’s required for public input and that they’re doing everything by the book.

“We’re just like any other party doing a cleanup under this type of permit issued by a state regulator,” she said. “We are not the bully here, we’re not the big dog in the room, we don’t control this process.”

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
Kate Lynnes, senior advisor for the Air Force's Kirtland Bulk Fuels Facility, gives a tour of the water treatment plant built to remove EDB for the fuel cleanup project.

Kirtland does control certain aspects of the process. They decide what their raw data means, they decide what cleanup measures to propose, and they can accept or ignore suggestions from the water utility or other stakeholders. Then it’s up to the state to consider any public comments before approving the work plans.

There’s still a whole section of contamination in Southeast Albuquerque that Kirtland hasn’t addressed yet, twenty years after the spill was discovered.

Credit U.S. Air Force
An Air Force presentation from April 2019 shows progress in shrinking the contaminant plume north of Ridgecrest Drive. The interim pump-and-treat measure has not addressed the portion of the plume south of Ridgecrest Dr.

The next public meeting about the cleanup is scheduled for July 25, 2019.


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.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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