If Only We Believed You: Assessing the Kirtland Jet Oil Spill Isn’t Easy


Kirtland mapThe nation’s biggest oil spill at Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) is lurking beneath the water table in Albuquerque’s sole source drinking water aquifer, and no one appears to be in any great rush to deal with it.

Except Citizen Action’s Executive Director Dave McCoy.

Citizen Action is a watchdog group that has been keeping tabs on Sandia National Laboratory’s Mixed Waste Landfill, also located on the base, for more than two decades.

McCoy has been following developments on this potential disaster for the 600,000 residents of New Mexico’s largest city since the news broke in 1999. At stake is the safety of the city’s drinking water.

In 2008, KAFB and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) held a public hearing to announce that a leak of jet fuel on the base had been steadily dripping into the aquifer for years. The leak hadbeen discovered in 1999, when, allegedly, an officer found oil on his boots and an investigation revealed a quarter-sized leak. The original estimate was 157,000 gallons. The Air Force explained their delay in releasing the news by saying they “didn’t want to alarm the public” until they knew the extent of the contamination. 

But now, 14 years later, an estimate made by NMED geologist William Moats is a whopping 24,000,000 gallons of jet fuel and gasoline containing benzene and the highly toxic carcinogen, ethyl dibromide (EDB); and the Air Force still hasn’t characterized the extent and nature of the spill.

Said McCoy in a phone interview, “They don’t know the rate of travel. They don’t know the extent and depth of the plume of contamination. They don’t know the exact location of the edge in relation to Albuquerque’s drinking water wells.”

On other sites, McCoy went on to explain, EDB has been shown to be extremely mobile. “It travels with the groundwater and it can show up in places where you don’t expect it to be.”

As to how well the Air Force is responding to this long-term problem, McCoy said, “They’ve got their language down. No matter who you talk to at the base – and they’re always changing, there have been eight different people in charge over the years – no matter who you talk to, they all use the same language. They’re always saying, We own the problem.

“But actually, we all own this. We’re all going to have to drink this poisonous swill. We own it because we are the taxpayers, and we’re going to have to pay for it in our water rates and our taxes. When the estimate of the plume size was 8 million gallons, the cleanup cost was estimated to be $100 million. Now, years later, we’re at 24 million. What is the cost going to be now?”

It’s a toss up who’s moving faster, the spill or the responsible agencies, but urgency does not seem to be the signature of the KAFB response.

At the insistence of the NMED, KAFB has installed 87 monitoring wells at some 35 locations to assess the contamination (NMED actually requested 100), but according to McCoy the 800-foot well screens are too large and too deep to get an accurate reading of whether the drinking water is safe; they effectively dilute the sample. There is also no monitoring well close enough to the potentially affected drinking water wells to warn the city that the plume is approaching the drinking water supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) for EDB in drinking water is 50 parts per trillion, with a recommended goal of zero exposure. EDB is a highly potent toxin that no one would choose to drink. Yet in 14 years, nothing significant has been done to remediate the spill, which is moving in the direction of Albuquerque’s five Ridgecrest wells that furnish approximately 20 percent of the city’s drinking water.

Three-quarters of the plume is off the base, and so far no one is addressing what will happen if the contamination shows up in the wells. McCoy said the Air Force has no contingency plan in place if the water does become contaminated.

 “The Water Utility Authority (WUA) has said it will shut down the wells, but where will they find new sources of water, and how will they treat massive amounts of water to use for industrial purposes?” he asked. “NMED doesn’t have any authority over the city wells once it hits. That goes to the Water Utility. They are stakeholders under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). They could bring a citizens suit against KAFB right now if they wanted to.”

In December 2012 the WUA passed a resolution asking that the KAFB work with its contractor and the NMED to accelerate efforts to put an aggressive plan in place by the end of 2013 to clean up the soil and water and for a contingency plan if city wells are hit.  Maggie Hart-Stevens, board liaison with the base and a county commissioner, has questioned Kirtland statements that the plume is “stable,” no longer moving and will simply go away from natural processes.  The WUA is putting in a well with the U.S. Geological Survey to get its own data 

Our calls to the WUA were not returned in time for publication.

Perhaps the lack of aggressive enforcement has to do with the Air Force claims that it has an economic impact of $7.8 billion. Could that tidy sum be the rationale for Governor Susana Martinez’s urging NMED to deal gently with the KAFB? According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal dated June 11, 2011, the Governor wrote a letter to Air Force Assistant Secretary Terry A. Yonkers blaming the “previous leadership” for the state’s poor working relationship with the Air Force and exuding praise for KAFB’s efforts “that allows for the most effective cleanup in the shortest time frame.” The governor’s assurance of a much more cozy relationship in future was applauded by former base manager Col. Robert Maness.

But a staff member at NMED who asked to remain anonymous confirmed McCoy’s repeated allegations that Kirtland would have done nothing if the department had not put the pressure on.

Even with that pressure, KAFB’s response to the crisis has been sluggish. The base has failed to meet four previous deadlines for characterization and remediation of the plume. With its 42 superfund sites across the nation coping with Hazardous Toxic and Radioactive Waste, the Air Force’s capacity to meet deadlines and comply with regulations may be challenged. Last month, KAFB again asked the NMED for an extension, this one for 120 days while they “arrange to appropriate” the necessary funds to comply. At issue in this instance is the repair of a pump house whose roof has caved in.

But any problems the Air Force may have performing its duties to the environment and public health doesn’t lessen the dimensions of the jet spill problem for Albuquerque residents. Why hasn’t NMED levied any fines against the base, asked McCoy, who wrote a 38-page letter to EPA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters asking that the agency, which has oversight of NMED, step in to reinforce its efforts. In a letter dated October 4, 2012, Laurie King, Chief of the Federal Facilities Section of EPA, wrote that Region 6 “has been closely following the fuel spill” and her own staff is monitoring NMED’s activities. Under NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, now in charge of the problem, “the collective understanding of the fuel spill has improved substantially over the past year,” so there is no reason to list KAFB’s plume on the National Priorities List, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act . . . and so it goes.

“I see NMED fighting with KAFB but not imposing sanctions that would wake those guys up,” said McCoy.

NMED declined to be interviewed for this story.

Eric Nuttall, professor emeritus of Chemical/Nuclear Engineering at the University of New Mexico (UNM), has been following this situation closely since 2000. In a phone conversation, choosing his words carefully, Nuttall assured me that the Air Force “has accepted responsibility” for the spill. “It’s the purpose of NMED to understand the extent of the plume and how fast it is moving, and I think the Air Force and its engineers have done a good job in that regard.

“NMED’s mission is to be protective of human health and the environment. They have to make sure they get all of the spill. You wouldn’t want to leave some of it undetected.”

“As in cancer?” I ventured.

Nuttall liked the analogy and kept referring to it throughout the conversation. We have a large, spreading plume, deep in the body of the earth where it can’t be seen, trapped underneath the top of the water table at a depth of 500 feet. It’s very expensive to treat, Nuttall continued to remind me—and it’s lethal.

“Is remediation moving fast enough?” I asked him.

He called the remediation thus far a “negotiated agreement” which “doesn’t completely satisfy everyone,” noting that homeowners who live above the plume “want to be sure the problem goes away as quickly as possible (as with cancer) and they would like more transparency.

“There are legitimate differences of opinion. Citizen Action is not wrong.

“Quite honestly,” he allowed, “it’s very bureaucratic.”

With everyone being so circumspect – except Dave McCoy – it’s very hard for the public to feel assured that the problem will be solved in a timely fashion. If only we believed all these agencies and spokespersons, life in these United States would be a whole lot easier.

Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at http://stephaniehiller.wordpress.com




    • I’m beginning to wonder if my health issues I’m having now are related to living in zia park in the 1990’s. It’s not very far from the spill. Does anyone know if other airmen are coming forward with concerns of this?

      • There were over 200 locations identified for toxic waste dumps at Kirtland. Sandia Labs, located on Kirtland, had over 200 toxic sites. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals are used annually at KAFB/Sandia.

        Near Zia Park, I believe there was a nerve gas dump. It wasn’t far from Wherry elementary school and housing.
        “Zia Park had been recommended for sampling and analysis during the evaluation of Air Force cleanup sites performed in 2009 (URS Corporation, 2009); however, sampling was not performed because of the potential hazard of chemical warfare materiel on site. An investigation is scheduled to be performed during summer 2012 to determine the nature and extent of contamination.”
        Source: https://kirtlandafb.tlisolutions.com/sitedocs/PDFS/23%5C2389.PDF

        “Zia Park is located within the former Kirtland AFB housing area southwest of Louisiana and Pennsylvania in the central part of Kirtland AFB. Various types of debris, including concrete and glass, are present on the surface. Base personnel stated that the site used to be a construction area in the 1970s and 1980. Vegetation on top of the raised mound appears distressed and unhealthy. Kirtland AFB personnel stated that an old map labeled this area as a chemical warfare training area. No previous investigations have been performed at the site and the nature and extent of COCs have not been determined. Zia Park is not identified as a Munitions and Explosives of Concern (MEC) or Chemical Warfare Material (CWM) site.” P. 4-4

        Many sites had the potential for off-gassing chemicals and radionuclides from soil and nuclear reactors. Exposure to chemicals would depend on what duties a person had, chemicals in use and proximity. Being an employee at Kirtland/Sandia meant exposure to chemicals in the specific worksite and in the general environment. http://www.radfreenm.org/old_web/pages/nr/pr-2008sep12a.pdf

      • Thanks for your comments! Please note that the reply to Brandon’s query regarding his health issues is by Dave McCoy, on my request. Dave has really been staying on top of this issue; he can be thanked for any attention the media is giving it, which alas is not commensurate with the danger to Albuquerque.


      • Thank you so much for the info. I’m having trouble with my joints and hands and have adult onset asthma. If Dave would like more info from me I would be happy to talk via email or whatever. Thanks again for the info it helps conect the dots.

  1. Great article, very informative, but the first sentence sure is confusing: “The nation’s biggest oil spill at Kirtland Air Force Base …”? Does this mean it’s really the nation’s biggest spill? Even bigger than Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf? Or is it the nation’s biggest spill that happens to be Kirtland? Don’t mean to nitpick but it almost sounds too alarmist to use that kind of superlative to describe the situation right at the top of the story.

    • Sorry I am tardy in responding, Gene. According to Dave McCoy, this is the largest oil spill to occur in the United States. But you are correct to point out that my grammar is faulty! thanks

  2. 24 million gallons (the latest estimate) is more than twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. From what I gather, Deepwater Horizon is much larger, but may not be considered a U.S. oil spill as oceans are often classified as international spaces.

  3. It is the largest underground spill affecting a drinking water aquifer in the history of the US. Because it can’t be seen and there aren’t dead bodies it will not be remediated in time to prevent the destruction of ABQ’s aquifer. The Air Force knew areas associated with the bulk fuels facility, i.e. the Bldg 1033 pump house, were contaminated at least by 1994. Commanders come and go and still no cleanup. The new NMED Secretary, Ryan Flynn, is an anti-environmentalist toady of Gov. Martinez. Don’t expect real enforcement. Look how he kissed up to the copper industry allowing the industry to self regulate. He also fails to enforce the 5 year review requirement for excavation of the Sandia Mixed Waste Landfill.

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