By DAVID CORREIA
In the late 1950s, Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force base built a new jet fuel loading facility to replace an older, leaking facility. The new one leaked just like the old one. For more than 40 years it leaked jet fuel—and the benzene and ethylene dibromide (EDB) found in jet fuel and aviation gas—into the surrounding soil. By the time it was discovered and stopped in 1999, 24 million gallons of jet fuel had spilled into the soil and groundwater. It is the largest underground toxic spill in U.S. history.
In the ensuing 13 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environment Department have yet to force the Air Force to remediate the spill or contain a toxic plume slowly migrating toward Albuquerque’s most productive wells. Kirtland AFB has not removed or treated a single gallon of contaminated groundwater. The NMED and KAFB promise to remediate the site, but see our La Jicarita/Weekly Alibi investigation on newsstands now (The Environmental Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of: Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Jet Fuel Spill). It paints a much darker picture of both the threat the plume poses to human health and the real prospects for remediation.
Since our investigation, Citizens Action New Mexico has joined with Amigos Bravos this week in once again appealing to the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in the stalled cleanup and conduct a new assessment of the Kirtland Air Force jet fuel spill. Their letter asks EPA “to consider inclusion of the KAFB jet fuel and aviation gas disaster on the National Priorities List,” noting that the spill is “larger by volume and toxicity than any of the other listed 42 Air Force Superfund sites and threatens a major metropolitan water supply.”
In a public meeting last week, KAFB claimed progress on the cleanup, pointing to recent soil vapor extraction efforts. Critics, including Citizen Action New Mexico, noted that soil vapor extraction—a process that cleans jet fuel-saturated soils—does nothing to remove benzene or EDB from potential drinking water (see our story on newsstands now for more on the threat of EDB in drinking water). When will KAFB begin removing EDB from groundwater? Not until the end of 2014, according to NMED Environmental Health Division Director Tom Blaine, who said that existing remediation efforts will be limited to soil vapor extraction.
The EPA has already rejected a previous and similar request for federal intervention in the cleanup. Despite NMED’s total lack of progress in cleanup, EPA has said publically that it believes NMED is making progress in cleanup. The request for Superfund status is intended to bring federal attention, and money, to a spill that Citizens Action and Amigos Bravos points out is twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. NMED staffers, however, told attendees at last week’s public meeting on the spill that the federal law that created the Superfund program exempts petroleum spills. In addition, NMED fears the “stigma” of Superfund status. It told the Albuquerque Journal that, “the stigma of such an action would have devastating economic consequences to local residents.” Meanwhile, a plume of contaminated groundwater continues to work its way toward Albuquerque’s drinking water.