Air Force Says Fuel Cleanup At Kirtland Will Begin

May 15--The Air Force is on schedule to have a small pilot project cleanup system installed and operating by July 1 to remove contaminants from a jet fuel spill, a Kirtland Air Force Base spokesman said Wednesday, meeting a state Environment Department mandate and avoiding threatened fines of up to $10,000 a day.

The system will be capable of pulling contaminants from an area about 50 feet across, a fraction of the mile-long area of contaminated groundwater, state and Air Force documents show -- drawing fire from critics who say it isn't enough.

The spill, involving an estimated 6 million to 24 million gallons of aircraft fuel, came from a small leak in an underground pipeline at the Albuquerque military facility. It was discovered in 1999, but likely had been leaking for decades. The contamination is moving through groundwater to the northeast, in the direction of Albuquerque drinking water wells.

The state had threatened fines unless the Air Force had a proven technology that was actually removing contaminants from the water in operation by July 1.

Critics say the small size of the effort honors the milestone more in name than in function. "It seems like a 'hurry up and look like you're doing something' plan," said Dave McCoy of Citizen Action, a community group pushing for more aggressive cleanup.

In the 15 years since its discovery, no contaminated groundwater has yet been cleaned up beyond a brief pump test done last fall. In August, the Environment Department and the Air Force promised to remedy that with an interim cleanup measure to be in place and working by July 1.

That goal will now be met, Air Force and state officials say, with a single well to be drilled in the next few weeks. It will use a two-step process. First, air will be pumped down into the aquifer, removing vapors as it bubbles up through the water. Soil vacuum systems will then pump the resulting contaminated air to the surface. "This is a proven technology in other areas across the country," said Tom Blaine, who is heading up cleanup oversight for the New Mexico Environment Department.

Blaine said it should be viewed as a pilot project to see if this approach will work. If it does, a line of similar wells could be installed at the edge of the contaminated area to prevent further spread toward Albuquerque's drinking water wells, he said. He said he expects it to take six to nine months to evaluate how well it worked.

Estimates of how long it will take the contamination to reach nearby drinking water wells have varied from five to 40 years.

Copyright 2014 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.