After 17 years of trying and $130 million in expenditures, the U.S. Air Force and the New Mexico Environment Department still don't have much of the information they need to develop a cleanup plan for the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill that threatens Albuquerque's drinking water supply, according to a new report on the cleanup effort.
And the Air Force has been downplaying what it will really take to clean up the spill, the report said.
The Air Force and the NMED still don't know the horizontal and vertical boundaries of the toxic EDB [Ethylene dibromide] plume in the city's groundwater outside the base, said the report by Intera Geoscience & Engineering Solutions of Austin, Texas.
The agencies don't know how much aviation fuel is still in the soil above the aquifer from which Albuquerque gets its drinking water, the report said. That fuel could leak EBD into the aquifer and eventually get into the aquifer itself. The Air Force has also been overstating how much of the EDB and aviation fuel has been degrading naturally.
In short, the report, which was prepared for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, said the Air Force and the NMED simply don't have enough information about the nature and extent of plume of aviation fuel and EDB in the groundwater to go forward with even remedial efforts to clean it up.
Intera examined the Air Force's Resourse Conservation and Recovery Act Facilities Investigation Report (RFI), which is the first step in planning a cleanup effort. The RFI was prepared by Sundance Consulting Inc. for the U.S. Army corps of Engineers. Intera found that RFI incredibly deficient.
“The data and analyses presented in this RFI report do not support Sundance’s conclusions that the nature and extent of contamination are sufficiently well understood or that there are sufficient data to move forward with the RCRA process,” Intera's report said.
“Our evaluation found that the RFI document does not provide the evidentiary basis for conducting a CME (Comprehensive Groundwater Monitoring Evaluation) and its conceptual model contains errors and omissions that could lead to an inappropriate or ineffective set of corrective measures,” the report continued. “Specifically, our review demonstrates that the RFI report lacks important data needed for the CME, inaccurately characterizes important features and processes in the subsurface, underestimates contaminant sources, and overestimates degradation rates.”
The Intera report continued:
“The data gaps about contaminant source mass in the vadose [ground above the water table] zone and the aquifer and unjustifiable overestimates of groundwater contaminant degradation are likely the issues of greatest concern to the ABCWUA. In our opinion, this RFI document downplays the remediation challenges ahead. It tries to show degradation is quickly removing contaminant mass, especially ethylene dibromide (EDB) mass, at rates that are not justified by the actual data and it underestimates the mass of EDB and other contaminants remaining in the vadose zone and the groundwater.”
One longtime critic of the Air Force's cleanup effort, Dave McCoy of Citizen Action New Mexico, said the Intera report was “devastating” news for the community and for the attempts at cleaning the spill, which is estimated to be between 6 million and more than 20 million gallons of aviation fuel.
McCoy obtained the Intera report through an Inspections of Public Records Act request to the ABCWUA.
“Right now they are flying blind,” McCoy said of the Air Force and NMED. “They don't know the vertical extent [of the EDB plume], they don't know the mass, they don't know how fast it's traveling, they don't know the horizontal extent. And this is after they have spent $130 million on this. Where is the accounting for this money they have spent?”
McCoy said that the purpose of an RFI “is to gather all the data necessary about a facility, basically the data that is legally required about the nature and the extent of the contamination. You have to know about the type [of contamination], how much of it is down there, how far it has traveled, how fast it's traveling..”
McCoy continued: “You need that so you can begin to decide what kind of short-term and long-term measures you want to put in place to protect the public safety and the drinking water.”
Another Air Force critic, Eric Nuttall, a retired UNM professor of chemical and nuclear engineering, said the report shows that the Air Force and NMED have had bad management teams in place with no oversight as to the decisions and assumptions they have made.
“It's like building a house. If you have a bad plan from the architect and you get three-quarters of the way done with the construction and you find it was flawed. It means you have started with a bad plan and with a bad structure and design,” Nuttall said.
Nuttall said he's concerned because EDB is one of the most toxic substances there is. He and others have worried that the EDB plume could reach the city's nearby Ridgecrest drinking water wells, which are the most productive in the system.
“There have to be a lot of reason to be concerned,” Nuttall added. “You have the world's most poisonous snake and are playing with it like it's a garden lizard.”
The Air Force first became aware of the aviation fuel leak in 1999 from Kirtland's Bulk Fuels Facility. It has been estimated that between 6 million and 24 million gallons of fuel leaked into the aquifer over several decades.
About two years ago, the Air Force launched a remedial cleanup effort by installing three to four extraction wells to suck contaminated water out of the plume and treat it. To date, the Air Force says it has treated 291.1 million gallons of water and removed 80.61 grams of EDB from it.
But McCoy said there are millions of grams of EDB in the groundwater.
“Two grams (half a teaspoon) of EDB were in every gallon of aviation gas. A half teaspoon of EDB is enough to contaminate 13,000,000 gallons of water above EPA drinking water standards,” McCoy said.
Officials from NMED and the ABCWUA were not immediately available for comment.
The NMED and the Air Force had planned to hold a public meeting in late July about the Air Force's RFI, but abruptly canceled it. The ABCWUA received its report from Intera on June 29.