New Mexico: Military needs to do more to clean up jet fuel

The U.S. Air Force has excavated thousands of tons of soil and treated millions of gallons of water contaminated by jet fuel at a base bordering New Mexico's largest city, but state regulators say the military still has more cleanup to do.

The New Mexico environment department, which monitors the cleanup's progress, late last week released a draft of this year's strategic plan for addressing the contamination at Kirtland Air Force Base.

The fuel leak — believed to have been seeping into the ground for decades — was detected in 1999. The greatest concern was potential contamination of drinking water wells in Albuquerque neighborhoods that border the base.

While state and military officials say drinking wells are now protected, community watchdogs argue that there are gaps in the data and are pushing for an independent review of the yearslong, multimillion-dollar cleanup project.

"Much information has been administratively kept secret from the public to paint over serious technical problems about the jet fuel spill investigation and remediation efforts," said Dave McCoy, whose group Citizen Action New Mexico has sued over the years to try to get documents released on the spill and cleanup.

McCoy and others said they have asked the state to establish a citizen advisory board and include details on the project's budget and spending for the next year.

The state's draft does not address any spending, but officials have scheduled three public meetings this year and are planning to put out a more comprehensive proposal on public involvement this summer.

Environment Secretary James Kenney, who took over the state agency this year, said the U.S. Air Force has made strides in cleaning up the fuel spill but that the work is far from complete. He said the contamination remains a top priority for his office and that he's committed to holding the Air Force accountable.

To keep the contamination from spreading beyond the boundaries of the base and toward drinking water wells, the Air Force installed a pump-and-treat system in 2015.

So far, more than 585 million gallons (2.2 million liters) of have been extracted, treated to less-than-detectable concentrations of contamination and either used to water the Kirtland golf course or injected back into the aquifer.

More than 4,200 tons (3,810 metric tons) of contaminated soil also was removed and vapor was pulled from the soil for over a decade.

The leaking fuel contained the additive ethylene dibromide, or EDB. While the effects on people haven't been well-documented, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says animal studies indicate that chronic exposure may result in toxic effects to the liver, kidney and reproductive organs.

Kenney said data gathered last year indicates the groundwater extraction and treatment is having a positive effect on the contamination. Under the draft plan, that work would continue along with more modeling and monitoring. The state also is requiring the Air Force to submit more data related to the soil vapor.

The plan for the cleanup at Kirtland was released just days after New Mexico announced it was suing the Air Force over groundwater contamination at two other bases in the state. In that case, the contamination — linked to a class of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — resulted from past firefighting activities at Cannon and Holloman air bases.