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State Hammers Air Force On KAFB Fuel Leak Report

State Hammers Air Force On KAFB Fuel Leak Report

Estimates of EDB and fuel concentration levels deemed "incomplete and biased".

It has been almost a love fest for the past two years between the U.S. Air Force and the New Mexico Environment Department regarding the massive Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill.

But that love fest ended four days ago when the NMED told Air Force officials that they had mischaracterized some aspects of the spill and the plume of ethylene dibromide it has created in the underground aquifer.

On Aug. 3, NMED Deputy Secretary J.C. Borrego sent the Air Force a letter saying that it’s characterization of the underground plume of EDB, and of the fuel itself, was incomplete and biased.

Borrego’s letter addressed what is known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Facility Investigation report and said NMED had “three major areas of concern” regarding the Air Force’s report that have to be dealt with immediately.

The first major concern is that because of water conservation efforts, the water table around the spill has been rising two to three feet per year, but has risen nearly five feet in the past six months. That has rendered somewhat useless all but nine of 62 shallow, water-table wells because their intake screens are now submerged by as much as 20 feet of water. The screens need to be across the top of the water table so EDB concentrations can be measured at that level, Borrego’s letter said.

The letter also said there were “incomplete and biased” estimates of EDB and fuel concentration levels and their degradation levels.

And the letter said that the Air Force’s 4,000-page report doesn’t adequately address just how big the the actual aviation fuel component of the spill is.

No one knows exactly how much aviation fuel leaded into the aquifer from Kirtland’s Bulk Fuels Facility, which opened in 1953. That’s because no one knew until November 1999 that two 16-inch diameter fuel pipes buried 10 feet underground had sprung leaks.

On Nov. 16, 17 and 18 of that year, crews were unloading fuel from a tanker truck. The fuel was supposed to be vacuumed through the pipes into two above-ground storage tanks, but something else happened. The fuel started bubbling up out of the ground — it was gushing out of the holes in the pipes — and KAFB officials knew they had a big problem. Only 51 percent of the fuel made it into the tanks those days; the rest leaked out.

It wasn’t until 2010, when the underground pipes were dug up, that officials knew why they had leaked. Each underground segment of the two pipelines had two holes on their bottoms.

Afterwards, officials surmised that the holes were caused by years of vibrations and soil compaction that resulted when tanker trucks or rail cars pulled up to the loading station. The trucks and rail cars were directly above the buried pipes. The vibrations caused rocks underneath the pipes to dig into them and eventually puncture them.

So, no one knows when the leaks actually started.

It has been estimated that between 6 million to 24 million gallons of fuel leaked from the facility and into the ground water over the years.

Both the Air Force and the NMED have promised that none of the EDB or fuel will ever reach several nearby city drinking water wells.


The Air Force has launched interim efforts to clean the spill. On Dec. 31, 2015, the Air Force activated a $14.2 million system of three extraction wells, pipes and a 4,000-square-foot, full-scale treatment plant, complete with two metal vessels that each have 20,000 pounds of carbon.

The system has treated 235.5 million gallons of water and removed 69.1 grams of EDB from the water.

The treated water has been used to irrigate Kirtland’s 18-hole golf course and has been pumped back into the aquifer through an old drinking water well on base.

The Air Force and NMED will hold a public hearing about the Air Force’s report at 6 p.m. Sept. 28 at the African American Performing Arts Center on the state fairgrounds.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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