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Does decades-long fuel leak threaten drinking water safety in Albuquerque?

May 13, 2014 at 6:29 PM EST
At Kirtland Air Force Base on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a hole in a pipeline allowed fuel containing toxic chemicals to ooze into the soil, undetected for more than four decades. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports on the efforts to clean up the leak, and the serious concerns that remain about drinking water contamination.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: the story of a massive spill of jet fuel at a military base. Officials have known about it for at least 15 years, but there’s still a debate about its size, where it’s going, and what to do about it.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports from New Mexico.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The trouble started here at Kirtland Air Force Base more than six decades ago. The sprawling base, about the size of Washington, D.C., sits on the southeast border of Albuquerque, the state’s largest city.

It’s home to the Air Force’s Nuclear Weapons Center, as well as a special operations wing.

Colonel Jeff Lanning is commander of the mission support group at the base.

COL. JEFF LANNING, Kirtland Air Force Base: It was in this area we found fuel actually coming to the surface, and we knew we had some kind of a problem at that point.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: That problem was a leak dating to the 1950s, when railcars and trucks delivered fuel to pipelines, powering planes at the growing base.

COL. JEFF LANNING: We found a hole in the pipe. And I have a piece of the pipe here, which is where the — the hole that we actually discovered. As fuel would sit in this pipe, it was able to escape the pipe and into the soil and drain into the — into the soil and migrate 500 feet down, eventually reaching the water table.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Some fuel is mixed with soil near the surface, and much more is headed down where it rests on top of the groundwater. Tom Blaine at New Mexico’s Environment Department uses an ant farm to explain.

TOM BLAINE, New Mexico Environment Department: And so I’m going to inject some dye that will represent the fuel, so you can see the migration of that fuel, how it spreads out and really the uncertainty of where it’s going and how it’s going to get to the groundwater table.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The oozing fuel wasn’t detected for more than four decades. At first, the size of the spill was put at about 157,000 gallons. Over the years though, that number ticked up as high as 24 million, the latest estimate, about six million gallons.

Dave McCoy is an attorney and director of Citizen Action, an advocacy group. He worries about where the fuel is headed, northeast, toward municipal drinking wells.

DAVE MCCOY, Citizen Action New Mexico: The boundary of the base is down here. But you can see that 80 percent of the plume has gone off the base now.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Even more worrisome: The fuel contained a cocktail of toxic chemicals. Among the compounds found was ethylene dibromide, or EDB, a no-knock agent once added to aviation gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls the chemical extremely toxic, because it can cause liver and kidney problems, damage sperm cells, and increase the risk of cancer.

DAVE MCCOY: It’s toxic if it touches your skin. It’s toxic if you breathe it. You’re going to breathe it, you’re going to get it on your skin if you’re taking a shower with this stuff. If you’re drinking it, it’s toxic that way.

TOM BLAINE: It’s in a developed residential neighborhood.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The EPA has given regulatory authority to New Mexico’s Environment Department, which has set a limit of 50 parts per trillion for EDB in drinking water. But the city water authority is adamant about keeping any EDB out of the water.

Chief operating officer John Stomp:

JOHN STOMP, Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority: We want to prevent this from further contaminating the aquifer. For contamination for us is, it’s no EDB or EDB. It’s not EDB at drinking water standards. It’s not EDB, because that’s what our customers are accustomed to.

COL. JEFF LANNING: In this area, a large concentration of contaminants were identified.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Concern in the city is on the rise. More than 100 residents crowded into a community center recently and gave Colonel Lanning a grilling.

MAN: They can’t characterize how far, how wide, how deep, how fast this plume is moving.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Lanning said the city water isn’t in immediate danger, and cited recent studies showing there’s time to for a fix, as long as 30 years before EDB reaches city wells. But McCoy and others dispute that estimate, and charge the Air Force with not being truthful and dragging its boots on the cleanup, charges Colonel Lanning denies.

COL. JEFF LANNING: I represent the government. A lot of people are holding up signs even. Before I even start saying anything, they’re telling me I’m lying. But I’m not. I am dedicated to keeping the water for the people of Albuquerque clean, and the Air Force is dedicated to that.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: At the meeting was retired sociology Professor Beverly Burris. She and her husband live a mile-and-a-half from the base. They drink mostly bottled water these days and are considering moving after 25 years in the city.

BEVERLY BURRIS: This is the largest ever to threaten a municipal water supply in the whole history of the country, so, by anyone’s standards, this is an enormous spill. It is an exceptionally large spill.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: More than 100 monitoring wells dot the landscape on and off the base, at a cost of about a quarter-million dollars each, paid for by the Air Force. They sample soil and groundwater for contaminants. Activists want more of them, and want them placed closer to city wells.

Less than a mile from the spill site are two municipal wells. The Water Authority’s contingency plan is to shut them down if they show contamination. But John Stomp would hate to have to do that, because the wells are among the most productive and the lowest in naturally occurring arsenic.

JOHN STOMP: Those two wells provide 10 million gallons a day. So, if our average daily use is about 100 million, that’s about 10 percent of our supply. This is what we call the sweet spot of the aquifer, because the water quality is so good and we get good yield on the wells.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Stomp and others say a prolonged drought in this arid state makes cleaning up the toxic leak even more urgent. Meanwhile, the Air Force has put interim measures into place, first, attacking the problem closest to the surface.

This machine, much like the catalytic converter in cars, extracts fuel vapors from the soil. Colonel Lanning says the method has removed about a half-million gallons so far.

COL. JEFF LANNING: As we pull the soil vapor out of the soil, anywhere where the fuel is sitting on top of the water table, it’s able to off gas, if you will, into the soil above it. It would be sort of like hooking up a large Shop-Vac to where you put the gas in your car. You’re not actually going to pull any liquid fuel out, but you could pull enough fuel vapor out that at some point the gas tank would be empty.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Getting EDB out of the groundwater is harder, because EDB dissolves in water. One option, pump the toxic water out and treat it.

That’s worked for smaller leaks like this one dating back to the ’80s at the site of an electrical generating plant in Santa Fe.

TOM BLAINE: You drop the water down through a column in a tube, and you blow air past it. And then you pass that water through that charcoal bed, which removes the rest of the EDB from the groundwater, from the drinking water.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: This is not so different from what I might do to filter my water at home?

TOM BLAINE: Oh, absolutely. You have a Brita filter on your tap, same thing. It’s an activated, granulated charcoal.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: But the Kirtland spill is far larger than the one in Santa Fe, which makes treatment much more difficult.

COL. JEFF LANNING: Pump and treat is generally not very efficient. You have to pump millions of gallons of water in order to scrub out very small amounts of a contaminant.

And the issue that we have is that you then have to do something with those millions of gallons of water. And, in the West, what you do with water is very, very important.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The leaks have long stopped, and trucks now deliver to a spanking new facility built last year with above-ground pipes and high-tech monitoring of the fuel. But Tom Blaine recently criticized the Air Force’s progress cleaning up the groundwater.

And in a letter to the base commander, he threatened to impose fines of up to $10,000 per day if a June 30 deadline for implementation of a new work plan isn’t met.

Beverly Burris believes it will take decades before the spill is cleaned up. And officials at the base, the Environment Department and the Water Authority all concur. As for the cost, the Air Force has already spent $50 million and believes that figure will double, at least.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can continue to track this story online. We will post links to both the Kirtland Air Force base project and the advocacy group Citizen Action, along with the transcript from this report.