Toxic Kirtland AFB Fuel Spill Threatens Albuquerque Neighborhoods

By DAVID CORREIA

Editor’s Note: See our most recent story on the KAFB jet fuel spill HERE
In January of 2011 the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority awarded Kirtland Air Force Base an environmental Award of Excellence. According to Authority spokesman David Morris, the Air Force base went  “above and beyond” its duty regarding wastewater discharge from the base.

While the base’s wastewater goes above and beyond, the New Mexico Environment Department recently revealed that Kirtland’s jet fuel goes below and throughout.

Last week Jim Davis, head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s resource protection division, revealed that a decades-old jet fuel spill on the base may be three times larger than earlier estimates. While Davis admitted the actual size of the spill is “unknowable,” his agency now estimates that 24 million gallons of jet fuel has leaked into Albuquerque’s water table from underground pipes at the base’s aircraft fuel loading facility.

The leak was first discovered in 1999 when construction crews, building a new bulk-fuel storage facility on the base, found a broken 16-inch pipe. At the time the base estimated the spill at 1-2 million gallons. Environment department officials disagreed, however, concluding that the leak was greater than 8 million gallons.

State officials originally estimated that the clean-up could take more than 50 years and cost $100 million. The new estimate of 24 million gallons makes the spill more than twice the size of the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. That and the glacial pace of Air Force remediation—the base has so far recovered less than 400,000 gallons since 1999—suggests that the threat to local water quality is much worse than originally predicted.

Rather than redouble efforts to clean-up the spill, the base continues to downplay the threat. In reaction to the recent report, base spokeswoman Marie Vanover replied that “there is really no way to carefully measure how much fuel is in the ground.”

Apparently there is no way to remove it as well. As recently as two years ago the base was still “working to identify the best technology to clean up the contamination,” according to Air Force environmental chief Terry Yonkers.

Meanwhile, a toxic plume of jet fuel continues to migrate out from Kirtland as it has since 1950. The massive spill now floats above the water table below Albuquerque’s southeast-side neighborhoods like a poisonous aquifer threatening water quality at the city’s municipal wells.