ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A coalition of state lawmakers and nonprofit groups took the first step toward suing the U.S. Air Force Friday, saying it wants firm deadlines for cleaning up jet fuel contamination at a base bordering New Mexico’s largest city.
The coalition filed a notice of intent to sue, saying the contamination at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque is a danger to public health and the environment. It wants an agreement that sets a cleanup schedule with clear deadlines and penalties.
"If the deadlines are missed without good reason, penalties should accrue. The Air Force needs to be held accountable," said Charles de Saillan, staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing the coalition.
Air Force officials say they’re committed to cleaning up the contamination.
Kirtland is home to the 377th Air Base Wing, Air Education and Training Command’s 58th Special Operations Wing, the Air National Guard’s 150th SOW and many other tenants.
A fuel leak — believed to have been seeping into the ground for decades, perhaps as early as 1950 — was detected in 1999. The leak is thought to be more than twice as large as the 1989 Exxon Valdez crude oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
The Air Force already has spent $125 million cleaning up soil and water around the site, but the coalition contends there are no enforceable requirements in place.
While state and military officials say drinking wells are protected, community watchdog groups argue that there are gaps in the data. They are pushing for an independent review of the years-long, multimillion-dollar cleanup project.
To keep the contamination from spreading beyond the boundaries of the base and toward drinking water wells, the Air Force installed a pump-and-treat system in 2015.
More than 585 million gallons of water have been extracted, treated to less-than-detectable concentrations of contamination and either used to water a golf course or injected back into the aquifer.
More than 4,200 tons of contaminated soil also was removed and vapor was pulled from the soil for over a decade.
The leaking fuel contained the additive ethylene dibromide, or EDB. While the effects on people haven’t been well-documented, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says animal studies indicate that chronic exposure may result in toxic effects to the liver, kidney and reproductive organs.
The New Mexico environment department, which monitors the cleanup's progress, recently released this year's strategic plan for addressing the contamination at the base.
The plan was released just days after New Mexico announced it was suing the Air Force over groundwater contamination at two other bases. In that case, the contamination — linked to a class of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — resulted from past firefighting activities at Cannon and Holloman air bases.
At Kirtland Air Force Base, "the response to this spill has moved far too slowly for far too long," said Douglas Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
The Air Force and U.S. Defense Department have 90 days to respond to the notice, after which the coalition may sue.
The coalition includes Democratic state Sens. Mimi Stewart and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, Democratic state Rep. G. Andres Romero, the Southwest Organizing Project, New Mexico Voices for Children and three residents who live near the base.