KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AP) - Every day, millions of gallons of jet fuel seep farther into theground below an Albuquerque neighborhood, a slow-moving plume thatalready has plopped a foot of petroleum atop an undergroundreservoir.
The source? Leaking pipes from a 1950s-era fuel loading facilityat Kirtland Air Force Base.
In recent months, New Mexico's top environmental regulator hasgrown frustrated by what he claims are Air Force delays, sayingit's time to get serious about cleanup.
The spill was discovered in 1999 and the damaged pipes wereremoved.
While remediation efforts have continued for years, the projectgained a fresh urgency in April when New Mexico EnvironmentDepartment officials moved oversight of the spill from the agency'sgroundwater division to the hazardous materials division.
"It was time to take action," state Environment Secretary RonCurry said.
Air Force officials have pledged cooperation — startingwith a $15 million cleanup commitment announced earlier in May— but the base commander insisted military officials havebeen trying to solve the problem since it became evident.
"I don't think there are many days that have passed in the last10 years where nothing has happened," said Col. Matthew Bartlett,commander of the 377th Mission Support Group at Kirtland. "We'vehad quite a few people working on this."
Officials initially believed the spill was isolated to groundnear the loading facility. A $10.4 million project is continuing onthe base, located just south of Albuquerque, to install safer fuelstorage units and pumps.
But in February 2007, a test well confirmed a foot of jet fuelwas floating on the water table almost 500 feet down. Over theyears, the plume moved across city limits, creeping under a parkand inching toward two municipal water well fields.
Albuquerque relies mostly on surface water from the Rio Grandefor its municipal water, but underground aquifers remain the city's"water savings account," said John Stomp, chief operating officerof the city-county water authority.
While they aren't immediately threatened, two municipal wellsare in the path of the plume's flow.
"There's a floating fuel product in the aquifer, so of coursewe're concerned," Stomp said. "If the plume keeps moving, we wouldhave to shut down wells, and we don't want to shut down anywells."
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, whose districtincludes the base boundary where the plume is spreading, said shedoesn't feel the Air Force has provided satisfactory answers abouthow chemical components from jet fuel might affect the watertable.
"I'm not at a comfort level where I can say this is going to beeasily remediated," she said. "They can't answer questions aboutwhat has dissolved in the groundwater and how far it traveled. Ihope the answer will be 'not much' and 'not very far.'"
Bartlett said Air Force engineers are working to provide answersand determine what cleanup would involve. The Air Force first mustfully characterize the size of the fuel plume to comply with anEnvironment Department request, he said, then a proposed cleanupplan can be submitted.
The sides widely disagree on the size of the spill — theAir Force estimates it at 1 to 2 million gallons, while theEnvironment Department says it could be more than 8 milliongallons.
Bartlett said the Air Force analysis is due within the next twomonths, and Curry will be waiting.
"We're going to make them be very accountable going forward,"Curry said. "We're going have them meet the deadlines we've askedthem to meet."
Last week in Santa Fe, Curry met with Terry Yonkers, anassistant Air Force secretary who oversees environmental issues, todiscuss the fuel plume. Curry said he came away encouraged that theAir Force will prioritize the issue.
As for how long cleanup might take, Curry said he's hoping for a30 to 40 percent reduction within three years. Bartlett wasreluctant to speculate on the time or cost required until Air Forceofficials can fully characterize the spill.
In any case, the commander rejected the suggestion that the AirForce won't solve the problem.
"There's no interest on our part to argue, push back or fight,"he said. "We all have the same goal — the base, the city, thestate, the county. We want to work off the fuel on the water tableto the satisfaction of environmental requirements. That's all ofour goal."
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