By DAVID CORREIA & WILLA CORREIA-KUEHN
The first thing you need to know about the Citizen’s Advisory Board (CAB) for Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) Jet Fuel Spill is that it holds quarterly meetings about plume remediation at the Cesar Chavez Community Center in southeast Albuquerque. The second thing you need to know is that nobody knows what the citizen’s advisory board is, who serves on it, or what role it plays in resolving the largest underground toxic release in U.S. history.
In the early 1950s, Kirtland built a new bulk fuels facility to store and distribute jet fuel and aviation gas to its fleet of planes and jets. Almost immediately, like the facility it replaced, it leaked jet fuel into the surrounding soil.
The leak continued, undetected, until 1992 when workers observed a huge surface plume in the soil surrounding the fuel facility. The Air Force ignored requests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the plume’s source and extent and instead, in 1994, gave itself a waiver from conducting military-mandated tests of the facility pipeline. Under pressure from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the Air Force finally conducted pressure tests of the pipelines in 1999. The pipes failed. Some spectacularly. A leak that was in 1999 estimated to be less than 100,000 gallons was, by 2007, assumed to be more than 8 million gallons. By 2008, the NMED suggested that the leak could be as large as 24 million gallons, twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
At some point after 2008, the effort to clean up the massive underground plume of gas and fuel that was slowly but surely contaminating Albuquerque’s aquifer included what NMED and KAFB call a citizen’s advisory board. It holds regular community meetings in Albuquerque and at those meetings the Air Force reports on its progress toward cleaning up the spill. One such meeting was held this past Tuesday, April 22, 2014.
And so the third thing you need to know about the CAB is how often the words “progress” and “remediation” are spoken by the Air Force in quarterly meetings that are always about the lack of “progress” and “remediation.” In the more than fifty years since the spill began the Air Force has yet to remove and treat a single gallon of contaminated groundwater.
As critics of KAFB, particularly Citizen Action New Mexico, regularly point out, this is troubling because jet fuel and aviation gas contain a nasty mix of toxic chemical compounds including benzene, toluene, and, worst of all, ethylene dibromide or EDB.
The EPA banned the commercial and industrial use of ethylene dibromide more than 40 years ago. Prior to its ban, the U.S. produced 300 million pounds of EDB annually for use as an agricultural crop fumigant. It was also used as an additive in leaded gasoline. Until the mid-1970s every gallon of aviation gas included EDB.
Laboratory tests in the 1970s confirmed that EDB is a reproductive toxin, a genetic mutagen and a potent carcinogen. But it was too late. Significant amounts of EDB were found in the groundwater of agricultural states throughout the U.S. The studies and contamination led the EPA to declare that there is no safe level of EDB in drinking water. Despite EPA standards, NMED permits EDB in drinking water at levels at or below 50 parts per trillion (ppt). Recent data from KAFB’s plume-monitoring wells find EDB concentrations in shallow wells on the base at concentrations of 240,000 ppt, a concentration nearly 5,000 times greater than the 50 ppt standard. Monitoring wells on and off base have found EDB in shallow, intermediate and deep wells at all depths in concentrations significantly higher than NMED’s standard.
The fourth thing you need to know about the CAB meeting is how different Tuesday’s meeting was from all those that preceded it. Usually sparsely attended, this meeting was packed with more than 150 people who crowded into a small meeting room at the Cesar Chavez Community Center. They listened to Air Force Colonel Lanning begin the meeting at 5:30 PM with a 20-minute presentation on the previous quarter’s (lack of) progress toward cleanup. Lanning made two specific claims. First, he argued that recent models of the EDB plume’s movement now predict that it won’t threaten the City’s drinking water for at least another 30 years. The plume is large and moving, but Lanning claimed that movement was slow and slowing. This model contradicts other models that show a much shorter time for the plume to reach important drinking water wells.
Decades after the initial contamination it remains at significant concentrations not only because so much was spilled into the aquifer, but also because EDB does not biodegrade. It persists in soils and groundwater. And this is where Lanning made a startling second claim. Despite the persistence of EDB, a persistence based on the fact that it doesn’t biodegrade, Lanning claimed that “fuel components, including EDB, are currently being degraded in the groundwater.” In other words, microbes are eating the EDB, a fact that, if true, would constitute a scientific discovery on the part of the Air Force that contradicts everything currently known about EDB. He concluded his presentation by saying that the Air Force is “actively remediating” the spill. “We are aggressively pursuing remediation of this plume.”
After Lanning’s presentation the rest of the meeting was taken up by questions and comments that, in almost every case, questioned every of one of these claims of progress by Lanning.
Dave McCoy, Executive Director of Citizen Action New Mexico, an environmental watchdog group, was among the first commenters. He criticized not only cleanup efforts but the undemocratic nature of the citizen’s advisory board. The CAB, McCoy pointed out, keeps no minutes, records no comments, and conducts no outreach in the community. “Who sits on this CAB? Are they here? I’ve never met them.” He demanded a CAB independent of the Air Force and composed of national experts. He went on to argue that the KAFB does not monitor the plume with any real accuracy. “Everything has been based in a form of modeling in order to fool the public,” he claimed.
Unlike every other CAB, this meeting was not only crowded but included protesters holding signs. Many of those protesters spoke and equated the jet fuel plume as a form of violence, even terrorism according to some, against Albuquerque by the Air Force. A military veteran named Bob Aly criticized the Air Force saying it was “hard to be concerned about Al Qaeda when our own Department of Defense is trying to kill us.”
Jim McKay, another member of Citizen Action New Mexico, challenged Lanning on his claim that KAFB was engaged in “active remediation” of the plume.
“I’m not aware of any plume remediation Colonel,” said McKay. Lanning quickly back pedaled. “Sorry. Right,” said Lanning. “What I meant was that we were removing fuel vapor from the soil.” No remediation has ever occurred, McKay reminded him, of the portion of the aquifer already contaminated.
A local teacher named Jeanne Pahls connected the jet fuel spill to the recent radioactive WIPP release and the problem of police violence in Albuquerque. “We have a militarized society here in Albuquerque. These things are a legacy of places like Kirtland. A militarized police department, radioactive releases, toxic jet fuel spills. You say that military jobs will help us but I think that the military needs to close up and go. It’s time to go. It’s time to leave. The Base needs to go.”
Another member of Citizen Action New Mexico, Joleen Carrico, criticized the CAB. “Why do we come here to these meetings and listen to the same nonsensical babble? Where is the cleanup? Where are the effective monitoring wells? Why won’t NMED require this? Our local and federal officials have failed us. Where are Mayor Berry and Susana Martinez? Why are they not here?” She was also skeptical that the CAB was anything more than a rouse to give KAFB the image that it is accountable to the community. “And who is this CAB? I’ve never met them. Are they here? What do they do? These people are all environmental terrorists. This is environmental injustice. We need an independent investigation and an independent CAB.”
Many members of the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition attend the meeting. Bob Anderson agreed with Pahls when he said “We should take the base back and sell it off to clean this up.”
Joel Gallegos of ANSWER condemned the Air Force: “You run around creating a system designed to kill human beings in the interests of nationalism. We don’t pretend to think that they’ll do anything if we don’t raise some hell. Why are we, in New Mexico, last in poverty, last in nutrition, last in health care, last in teen pregnancy? What does this base give us? We get $2 million dollar missiles that kill children. We need you to clean this up.”
Nearly two hours of comments included only one that wasn’t critical of Kirtland and that came from local businessman, Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce board member and Kirtland-booster Sherman McCorkle. McCorkle took issue with a Citizen Action New Mexico handout critical of the Air Force. In his rambling three-minute statement he attacked the handout, saying “they’re calling the Air Force liars. Our heros are coming home from Afghanistan without legs and this handout is calling them liars.”
When he sat down, two rows in front of me, I asked him, “Where in the handout does CANM call all members of the Air Force liars?”
“Bullet point number five on the front,” he replied. That bullet point reads as follows: “Dishonest statements that Kirtland only knew in 1999 Fuel Facility was leaking.”
“They’re not saying the entire Air Force and all its members are lying. What are you talking about?” I asked.
He turned bright red, stared at me and slowly began a maniacal laugh that continued for nearly half a minute.
Speakers were held to three minutes, with Lanning usually interrupting people and demanding they stop talking. And then he often launched into lengthy responses to comments, at times offering jingoistic appeals to “freedom” and the “honor” of the military that were jeered at by the public in attendance.
A number of people asked if the Air Force were tracking illness rates to EDB. Lanning looked confused, saying that KAFB was not.
One woman asked how they could say they were “aggressively” working on the spill when it was more than 30 years old.
Another woman agreed with Dave McCoy and called for a team of independent scientists.
The meeting didn’t go well for Lanning and the KAFB, but it won’t matter because the CAB took no notes of any of the comments.
The last thing you need to know about the Citizen’s Advisory Board is the irony of its location: the Cesar Chavez Community Center. As he does at every CAB meeting, Colonel Lanning began and ended the meeting under a mural of Cesar Chavez, all the while oblivious to the irony of the image of Chavez, who represented farmworkers poisoned by fumigants laced with EDB, looming over a meeting about a plume of EDB poisoning Albuquerque’s groundwater.