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N.M. officials fault Air Force for change to Kirtland fuel-spill cleanup

Jun. 2, 2013 - 02:32PM   |  
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An Air Force system for sucking fuel contamination from Albuquerque groundwater is using a less effective technology than planned, state officials said Friday.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that New Mexico Environment Department also said that the Air Force made the switch without consulting state regulators.

The Air Force said the design change, which uses a lower temperature furnace to burn off fuel vapors, was made for fire safety reasons and that the system still meets the contamination removal requirements.

According to a May 23 letter from the Environment Department, the Air Force promised one thing when asking for state approval last year, then while the project was under construction last year quietly switched the kind of cleanup technology to one that removes contamination at a “significantly” lower rate.

“They didn’t put in what they told us they were going to put in, and they didn’t tell us why,” Tom Skibitski, head of the Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division, told the Albuquerque Journal.

The Air Force changed its original plan because of fire safety concerns, said Col. Jeff Lanning. Lanning did not dispute the Environment Department’s contention that the system as built will slow removal of contamination, but said the Air Force is still collecting its own data to determine how effective the machine has been in nearly six months of operation.

Despite the design change, “our system still meets the requirements,” Lanning said in an interview Friday. Lanning said the Air Force is still reviewing the Environment Department notification letter to determine how to respond to the department’s concerns, including that the change was made without proper notification to the state.

State officials and Lanning both said in interviews that, despite the dispute over the technology being used, the new system is removing contamination.

“They are pulling fuel out of the ground,” said John Kieling, head of the Environment Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau.

Kirtland Air Force Base discovered a spill from a leaking underground fuel line in 1999. Officials believe fuel had been leaking for decades. In 2007, they discovered that it had reached groundwater and was moving beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood toward municipal drinking water wells.

The nearest drinking water well is less than a mile from the closest known area of groundwater contamination. Test results on the well, and a monitoring well drilled as a “sentry” between the drinking water and the fuel plume, have showed no contamination. An Air Force report filed with the Environment Department in April concluded that the area of groundwater contamination continues to grow, with the most serious area of contamination spreading at the rate of 80 feet to 200 feet per year.

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