In 1999 a leak was discovered in the jet fuel loading facility at Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB). The size of the spill has been estimated at 24 million gallons (91 million litres), the largest toxic spill in the history of the US. Jet fuel and aviation gas had been leaking into the soil and groundwater for decades. The KAFB jet fuel spill is approximately twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, when a tanker spilled more than 12 million gallons (45 million litres) of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds along with seals, otters, and killer whales. In 2013 Citizens Action New Mexico (CANM) published an investigation of the clean-up programme, which was highly critical of the authorities, stating that, over 13 years after discovery of the leak, the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) had not compelled the Air Force to remediate the spill effectively or to contain a toxic plume migrating towards wells that are an important source of drinking water for Albuquerque. CANM joined with Amigos Bravos to appeal to the EPA to intervene in the stalled clean-up and conduct a new assessment of the spill. CANM criticized a map ostensibly showing the known limits of contaminated groundwater, arguing that KAFB had not completed studies of the aquifer, so hydrologists were not able to model the movement of the underground contamination. CANM and other critics of the remediation efforts were especially concerned that it was limited to soil vapor extraction, a process that cleans jet-fuel saturated soil but does nothing to remove contaminants from groundwater.
The fuel leak was actually evident many years before its ‘discovery’ in 1999, when the Air Force conducted pressure tests of the pipelines which failed and blew massive holes in the pipeline. It is thought that the facility began leaking almost immediately after its installation in 1953. In 1992 workers observed a large surface plume in soil surrounding the facility. The Air Force then ignored EPA requests to investigate the source of the plume and extent of the spill. The extent of the spill was drastically underestimated. KAFB’s initial estimate was one to two million gallons (3.79 million - 7.57 million litres). The true extent of the spill was only discovered after an Air Force contractor drilled an exploratory well in southeast Albuquerque, just outside KAFB’s northern boundary. He found four feet (over 3 meters) of jet fuel floating on top the aquifer. Additional monitoring wells enabled detection of a plume of jet fuel moving well beyond the northern boundary of the base.
The leaked jet fuel and aviation gas contain a number of toxic chemical compounds which pose a serious risk to human health, including benzene, toluene, various aliphatic (non-aromatic) hydrocarbons and, most worryingly, ethylene dibromide (EDB) which is a potent carcinogen. In response to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 the EPA determined the safe level of EDB in drinking water to be zero. NMED permits EDB in drinking water at levels at or below 50 ppt (parts per trillion). The presence of EDB proves that the spill began before 1975. EDB, banned for all commercial purposes, was used in leaded aviation gas. The Air Force discontinued use of leaded aviation gas in 1975. In 2013 the most recent data from plume monitoring equipment located in shallow wells at KAFB found EDB concentrations of 24,000 ppt, nearly 5,000 times greater than NMED’s 50 ppt standard. Other monitoring wells located on and outside the base also found EDB at concentrations significantly higher 50 ppt. 2013 estimates indicated that a plume of EDB contaminated groundwater 1,000 feet (305 meters) wide and more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) in length was moving northeast from the base at a rate of about 385 feet (117 meters) per year, heading directly towards the Ridgecrest neighbourhood where Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority operates wells pumping such large volumes of water for the city that they act like a straw, sucking the plume closer.
A historical summary of the KAFB jet fuel spill, produced by CANM in 2013, adds to the weight of evidence that KAFB and the Air Force misinformed the authorities and the public about when the leak was first known. Documentation of waivers for pipeline testing, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the Air Force knew much earlier than 1999 that jet fuel was leaking at the fuels facility and that the pipelines could not meet safety requirements and needed repair or replacement. Throughout the 1980s the Air Force had known that leaks were common at KAFB and highly toxic to drinking water. CANM’s historical summary also documents KAFB’s repeated failure to comply with NMED orders to determine the magnitude of the leak and how far and how fast it had spread. The first off-base monitoring wells were not installed until 2010.
In 2014 a draft EPA report, released after CANM filed a Freedom of Information Act request, stated that groundwater contamination from the KAFB jet fuel leak would not be likely to reach Albuquerque drinking wells in Ridgecrest for 30 years, revising previous estimates that the plume could reach pumping stations within five years. Critics of the report with a high level of relevant expertise, including CANM Executive Director Dave McCoy, Robert Gilkeson, a registered geologist and Eric Nuttall, an emeritus professor of chemical and nuclear engineering, said that it downplayed the risk to drinking water because its finding were based on insufficient information about how long the plume will take to travel to two important wells. A video of a meeting that discussed the deficiencies of the EPA report explains various issues including the uncertainties in computer modelling due to data gaps, the insufficient number of monitoring wells and inability to determine the location of the front edge of the plume.
An April 2018 update on the KAFB jet fuel spill covers developments in the response. In 2017 the administration had determined there was not sufficient interest to warrant creation of a citizen advisory board but the issue was being discussed again by the NMED, the City Water Advisory Board and the Air Force. The Air Force had installed a new well near the source of the leak to speed up the extraction of contaminated materials and contaminated groundwater was being treated and reintroduced to the biosphere. At this juncture more than 350 gallons (1.3 billion litres) of water had been treated. But relations between the Air Force, NMED and water authorities were strained. Local science writer and water expert John Fleck reported that authorities at the city water authority were concerned about the remediation plan, criticizing it as “disconnected from the stated goal of protecting drinking water and the aquifer and [further] undermine the Water Authority’s ability to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water”.
By March 2019 more than 585 million gallons (2.2 billion litres) of contaminated water had been extracted, treated and used either to water Kirtland golf course or injected back into the aquifer. More than 4,200 tons (3,810 tonnes) of contaminated soil had been removed and vapor had been extracted from the soil for over a decade. State and military officials said that drinking wells were now protected from the spill, but community watchdogs continued to argue that there are gaps in the data and push for an independent review. Dave McCoy, CANM Executive Director, said: “Much information has been administratively kept secret from the public to paint over serious technical problems about the jet fuel spill investigation and remediation efforts.” Again, CANM asked the state to establish a citizens advisory board.