Public Health New Mexico
7:57 pm
Wed July 23, 2014

New Kirtland Fuel Clean Up Team Warms Some Skeptics

Tensions were initially high at Tuesday's Kirtland Air Force Citizen Advisory Board meeting, but that dissipated as discussion about cleaning up toxins from the jet fuel spill deepened.
Credit Rita Daniels

Kirtland Air Force Base held their quarterly Citizen Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday to talk about cleaning up the fuel spill threatening Albuquerque's drinking water supply. People learned they may see more action in the coming months than they have over the past 15 years.

The evening kicked off with a brief power point presentation as one of Kirtland’s project managers went over various clean up efforts.  Then the public was allowed to ask questions.

Willard Hunter, who lives in Albuquerque, asked about the removal of contaminated soil that just started around the actual spill site.

“You discovered this leak in back in 1999,” said Hunter, “and it’s 15 years later. So why in heavens name have you not been excavating this contamination out of the soil starting when you discovered it?”

Kirtland’s Wayne Bitner has been working on the project for the past 7 years.  He said the base was caught up in putting a plan together to actually do the work.

“That plan had to be approved, sampling had to occur, the data had to be collected and reported to the regulatory authority,” explained Bitner. “They (regulators) then approved the data and gave us the go-ahead to start excavation of that soil.”

“And that process took 15 years?” asked Hunter.

“No sir,” Bitner replied. “That process took the better part of 3 years.”

A tense back and forth ensued that seemed to capture years of the public's frustration.

(You can listen to the full meeting here.)

“So why,” Hunter asked, “didn't you start that process in 1999 when you claimed to have discovered the leak?”

“That was not part of the process at the time,” Bitner explained.

“One of the things that really irritates me about the Air Force is that all you folks are new and none of you were here when this took place and none of you take responsibility for what happened,” vented Hunter. “And the Air Force doesn't take responsibility either.”

Air Force officials have repeatedly said that they take full responsibility for the clean up but there has been a high rate of turnover, both at the base and within the New Mexico State Environment Department. One of the chief complaints heard over time is that no one official is really carrying the torch or taking the issue seriously. Kirtland’s new Commander, Colonel Haught, has been on the job for about a week.

Maureen May of Albuquerque also spoke.

“I want to welcome new members from Kirtland,” May said. “As you have more of these meetings I think you'll understand that there are people here who have watched the inaction over months and years, so there's a lot of skepticism.” 

To be fair its not that the Air Force has done nothing to address the spill. The U.S. Department of Defense has spent $60 million over the past decade and a half, mostly studying the matter, trying out various technologies and working to come up with a comprehensive plan. At Tuesday’s meeting Kirtland announced they would begin pumping the contaminated water out of the ground and treating it soon.

The city's water utility has said they won't allow any contamination of ethylene di-bromide-or EDB-in the drinking water supply.  However, the New Mexico Environment Department's standards are less stringent for the carcinogenic chemical. Maureen May asked about.

“Our water authority represents people that we elect,” said May. “I just heard you say that you are leaving as an option to ignore their decision that we would have point zero part of EDB in our drinking water.  And I find that to be very arrogant on the part of the Air Force, unless I misunderstood you.”

Kirtland’s Wayne Bitner tried to answer her question.

“This clean up activity is regulated under the New Mexico Environment Department,” Kirtland’s Wayne Bitner responded. “The standard that we're held to is the maximum contaminant level, and in the case of EDB it's .05 milligrams per liter.  That's what our clean up efforts will be regulated against."

“So you are going to ignore the water authority?” asked May.

Bitner said no.

“I think you are hedging,” said May, “because that's exactly what you are saying.”

There was a lot of discussion about what would be done with the treated water.  And a lot of misunderstanding. With tensions high, Brenda Rush with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center stepped in.  She explained that, in the end, yes, there will still be detectable levels of toxins in the water, but that that water will not be put back into the city's drinking water supply.

“None of the options that we are exploring is putting it (the pumped and treated water) back into the potable water supply,” Rush said. “We do need to clean it to an MCL level but putting it in the potable water supply is not part of the discussions that we are talking about right now.  It’s what are we going to do with it on base that's appropriate.”

Rush explained that the cleanup of this site has actually been moved to the top of the Air Force’s environmental priority list because of potential public health impacts. That means that both the money and what she called the "A-team" have been brought in to tackle the issue.

“So please hold us accountable,” Rush said. “We expect you to, it helps us keep all our folks on their toes and we want the right solution in place because this is a team effort.”

Leading that new team is Dr. Adria Boudour, also with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. She acknowledged that in the past there hasn't been very much transparency, but she said that once people get to know her, they will see that that is not how she rolls. Boudour said she's working with the city's water utility and the state environment department to hammer out a clean up plan because, at this point there is no messing around.

“We are sitting down and having all of these discussions,” Boudour said. “We are trying to come up with a conceptual model of what is a plan, figure out what it is going to take. Then we start to figure out the time and the budget that is associated with that because I've gotta know what I'm dealing with, money wise, so that I can get it under a contract that I can get awarded so I can move forward.”

The crowd starting clapping and the tension broke.  Some people even took the microphone and said that for the first time in 15 years they feel cautiously optimistic. The New Mexico Environment Department has ordered the Air force to have the pump and treat system up and running by the end of the year.