Sixteen years after an underground fuel leak at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico was first discovered, and almost seven decades after the leak possibly began, the Air Force has begun a new cleanup effort that has local officials guardedly optimistic.

On the outskirts of Albuquerque, a city of more than 500,000 people, the Kirtland spill by 1999 had released millions of gallons of fuel into the surrounding water table and was creeping toward the city's drinking water supply.

The damaged pipe was taken out of service when the leak was discovered, but the cleanup dilemma remained, with local officials and residents often accusing the Air Force of foot-dragging.

In June, the first in a series of wells began pumping the fuel and contaminated water out of the ground, an approach advocated "for some time now" by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, said David Morris, a spokesman for the water authority.

"There was a period of time during which we were very concerned about the apparent lack of progress and lack of clarity with respect to cleanup plans," he said. "So we've been very encouraged by recent developments, which seem to point to a renewed commitment on the part of the Air Force to address this problem."

For Adria Bodour, the Air Force's program manager and technical lead for the cleanup, her role is clear: "Our No. 1 goal is to protect the City of Albuquerque's drinking water."

A leaking pipe

The source of years of frustration was an underground fuel transport pipe at Kirtland that carried fuel from delivery vehicles to storage areas.

"We had rail cars that came in or later on trucks" to bring in the fuel, Bodour said. "When they would drive up to that piping, we believe that jarring up and down and rubbing against the rock created a hole in the pipe. A rock basically tore a quarter-size hole in that pipe."

The fuel the pipe carried contained an additive, ethylene dibromide, dubbed "extremely toxic to humans" by the Environmental Protection Agency.

That particular fuel had only been used at Kirtland during a specific time, so authorities were able to determine that the leak had occurred sometime before 1975, Bodour said. That means that, at best, fuel had been leaking for almost 25 years before it was discovered. But it's also possible fuel had been leaking since the 1950s.

The Air Force has struggled for years to address the spill.

"The old system was taken out of service in 1999 when the leak was discovered," said Wayne Bitner, Kirtland's chief of environmental restoration. "Shortly thereafter that offloading rack pipeline was taken out of service, capped, and never used again."

Now the whole system, pipes and all, is above ground, monitored by computer equipment that can detect when there may be a leak.

"We won't ever have an incident like we have, where we had a pipe leaking to the subsurface and nobody noticed," Bodour said.

But the damage had been done. The Air Force estimates that 6 million gallons of fuel had leaked into the ground and water table surrounding the base. But scientists at the New Mexico Environment Department said in 2012 the spill could be as large as 24 million gallons — more than twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

The fuel plume that started seeping out from the base is estimated to be 7,000 feet long and 1,600 feet wide.

The Air Force got a more concerning picture of the extent of the damage in 2007, when workers dug a well outside the base.

"They found about 18 inches of fuel floating on the groundwater," Bitner said. "Besides having a soil contamination problem we also had a groundwater contamination problem."

A contentious relationship

That contamination concerned city officials that the drinking supply for Albuquerque could eventually be affected.

To date, there has been no detection of fuel contamination in the city's drinking water, but local residents demanded action from the Air Force and became increasingly agitated at what they viewed as years of delay by the service.

Bodour, an Albuquerque native who was brought onto the project in 2014, admitted the Air Force's communication with the general public was minimal.

"We weren't having a conversation, we weren't being transparent with them, and that allowed for a lot of negativity to fester," she said.

Most recently, the Air Force missed a December deadline to get pumping wells operational and begin the cleanup, prompting protestations from local residents and threats of fines from the state government.

"Deadlines matter," New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn said in a January speech. "Our expectation regarding an [ethylene dibromide] interim measure will not be satisfied until the Air Force begins operating the groundwater pump and treatsystem."

Allison Majure, spokeswoman for the state's Environment Department, said the agency now has a good working relationship with the military, but still maintains an oversight role.

"The work's happening, it's productive, and there's forward motion," she said. "However, we're the regulator and the Air Force is the regulatee. There were times when deadlines were missed and fines have been enacted. The Department is a practical organization: Our goal is to get this cleaned up."

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said he would be "very concerned" if there was a lack of action. Instead, he said he applauds the Air Force's "can-do attitude" and is "confident that there will be tremendous progress" from the new wells.

"This spill happened over decades; it's not going to be cleaned up overnight," he said. "We need to move aggressively, but to do it right, we have to understand it."

Figuring out the next step

Detecting the fuel spill in 1999 was one thing. Deciding how to fix it was another. The Air Force spent years collecting data on the site and looking at and trying potential treatment methods.

Ironically, Air Force officials ran into difficulties with the cleanup due to the city's launch in 2009 of an environmental program to stop drawing so heavily from the groundwater, Bodour said.

"The groundwater level had dropped almost 100, 120 feet," she said. "They realized that this was not very sustainable and the city and the water authority basically really got in action."

Albuquerque found ways to save water, and the underground aquifers the city was drawing from began to replenish, rising by eight to 12 feet.

That affected the contaminated groundwater, too. Up to that point, much of the fuel had been floating on top of the water, like oil and vinegar separating in salad dressing. But more water underground meant less room for fuel, and the pressure started to mix the two liquids together.

Efforts to skim the fuel off the top of the water were halted, and Bodour noted that the Air Force has not found floating fuel for more than a year. The plan is to dig wells that will pump the fuel and contaminated water out of the ground.

The first well — drilled into the parking lot of a local church — was turned on full time June 30. This fall, the Air Force expects to construct two more wells. Depending on how cleanup expands, up to another five wells could be constructed next year.

Since 2008, the Air Force has spent more than $92 million on the cleanup, according to data provided by the service's Civil Engineer Center, including more than $10 million for Kirtland's new "state-of-the-art" bulk fuels facility.

The rough estimate is that the major cleanup operations could be completed in about 10 years.

"It's hard to tell the public, 'trust us, believe in us,'" Bodour said. "We've got to show it in the proof and pudding."

 

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