By STEPHANIE HILLER
The 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