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KAFB Fuel Spill: Poisonous Plume Could be Heading Toward VA Drinking Water Well

State environment officials charged with cleaning up the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill are worried that the spill's underground plume of poisonous ethylene dibromide (EDB) could be headed to a well that supplies drinking water to Albuquerque's Veterans Affairs hospital.

The EDB plume is about 400 to 500 feet away from the VA's well and might soon be moving toward the well because of the rising groundwater table, New Mexico Environment Department officials said in a Jan. 19 draft letter to Air Force officials.

If the VA's well were to become contaminated by the EDB, the hospital could easily switch to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility's water system. The VA routinely switches to the ABCWUA system when its well is down for maintenance, said Water Utility spokesman David Morris.

But if the well does become contaminated it means one less source of water for a high desert city with a limited supply of fresh water.

The Jan. 19 letter, which was never sent, said that because of the rising water in the underground aquifer from which the VA and metro area get drinking water, a monitoring well between the VA's drinking water well and plume has had it's intake screen submerged by water and can no longer accurately measure for EDB.

The screen of that monitoring well, and of the dozens of other monitoring wells around the mile-long EDB plume, must be near the water table's surface in order to accurately check for EDB.

The NMED's letter seemed to say two different things. The first was that the EDB plume, instead of moving to the northeast and away from the VA's well, was beginning to move to the southwest toward the VA's well. The second was that there was the “potential” for the plume to move toward the well. Here's part of the letter:

“Figure 6-35 clearly illustrates the change in hydraulic gradient and groundwater flow direction over time, transitioning from a strong gradient towards the northeast to a relatively flatter gradient in the area of the EDB plume. In particular, Q4 2015 water table levels in Figure 6-35 indicate a relatively flat gradient at the plume-scale with a component of groundwater flow towards the Veterans Administration (“VA”) Hospital water supply well. These water table maps are generated using groundwater monitoring wells that are no longer screened at the water table and therefore there is uncertainty in both the extent and magnitude of contaminant concentrations at the water table. Due to the rising water table and submergence of groundwater monitoring well screens at the water table, there is no longer a functional sentinel well for the VA Hospital water supply well. The loss of the sentinel well and the lack of resolution of contaminant plume(s) at the water table gives NMED great concern about the potential westward migration of groundwater contaminants towards the VA Hospital well. The Permittee shall prioritize the installation of a water table groundwater monitoring well, as discussed in the September 6-8, 2017 technical working groups. Additionally, the Permittee shall provide a rigorous analysis of current hydraulic conditions across the plume to evaluate the potential westward migration of groundwater contaminants and implications for the VA Hospital well.”

NMED spokesperson Allison Majure said the Jan. 19 draft letter was never sent because her department is working with the Air Force to drill new monitoring wells near the VA well. She also said that while NMED has no concerns that while the VA well will be contaminated in the near future, there are long-term concerns.

“NMED has longer-term concerns about the VA well, but we do not expect it to become contaminated in the near future,” Majure said in an email to ABQReport. “The first two data gaps wells to be drilled this May or June, will be located east of the VA well, between it and the plume. As the hydraulic gradient and direction of groundwater flow changes, changes in contaminant migration path will follow, but much more slowly. NMED also expects hydraulic testing of the VA well to see how much water is produced from above and below the clay rich stratigraphic layer known as “A2”.

It has been estimated that more than 24 million gallons of aviation fuel leaked from an underground pipe on Kirtland Air Force Base for more than 30 years. That fuel seeped into the aquifer, and EDB, a component of the fuel, has separated out into the ground water.

The Air Force has drilled four extraction wells over the plume which pump contaminated water to a treatment facility on the base.

Critics of the cleanup process have complained that it has moved too slowly. One of those critics, Dave McCoy, of Citizen Action New Mexico, said the VA well is in danger of becoming contaminated.

“Part of the danger comes from the fact that they don't have a [working] sentinel well at the shallow level [near the VA well], and all indications are that the EDB plume is still moving,” McCoy said.”And when they don have a sentinel well they don't know how close it [the EDB plume] is to the drinking water well. The prior sentinel well was 200 feet from the VA well.”

Retired University of New Mexico professor Eric Nuttall, who has also been critical of the cleanup effort, said the situation regarding the VA well is a “significant problem” that “isn't to be taken lightly.”

If the VA well does become contaminated, that will be one less source of drinking water for the metro area, Nuttall said.

“You would have to shut that well off, and now we're taking limited water resources out of circulation,” Nuttall said. “It is more or les taken out of circulation for the long term. It's like taking money out of your bank account. You no longer have that to rely on on an as-needed basis.”

Nuttall also added that, right now, Air Force and NMED officials “don't know where the water is going to migrate next.”

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