By Sen. Mimi Stewart, Albuquerque Journal
June 26, 2019
On May 31, the N.M. Environmental Law Center sent a letter to the Air Force and the Defense Department notifying them that its clients might file a lawsuit to compel cleanup of the bulk fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base. The letter was sent on my behalf, and that of two other legislators, the Southwest Organizing Project, N.M. Voices for Children, and three individuals who live and work in the International District of Albuquerque.
On June 7, the Journal ran an editorial, “Kirtland Lawsuit 20 Years, Millions of Gallons Late,” which was critical of our action. The Journal editorial is disappointingly misinformed.
The editorial was right about one thing: the long history of Air Force inaction. The Air Force first discovered the leak at its fuel storage facility in 1999, although it likely had evidence of a serious problem years earlier. The facility leaked an estimated 5 million to 24 million gallons of jet fuel, gasoline and diesel fuel. The resulting plume of groundwater contamination contains ethylene dibromide (EDB) and benzene, both carcinogens, among other toxic constituents. The Air Force dragged its feet for years while the plume migrated through groundwater nearly a mile toward the Ridgecrest wells, which contribute to Albuquerque’s drinking water supply. Only in late 2015 did the Air Force install extraction wells to begin removing and treating contaminated groundwater.
The Air Force has made some limited progress in the last four years. The editorial points out that hundreds of millions of gallons of water were extracted and treated in 2018 – 217 million gallons in 2018 according to the Air Force. But it is useful to point out another statistic: the Air Force reports that it extracted 24,553 milligrams of EDB from that water in 2018, which is barely enough to fill a shot glass.
Aside from the EDB plume, the large mass of spilled fuel remains in groundwater and will be a continuing source of contamination until it is cleaned up. After 20 years, the Air Force still has not begun to address this cleanup.
The editorial claims as “no longer true” our criticism that there is no enforceable cleanup plan with meaningful schedules or deadlines. But our criticism is as true now as it was when the leak was first discovered. The only plan we have seen is the Environment Department’s 2019 Strategic Plan which, though informative, is seven pages, has no schedules or deadlines and is certainly not enforceable.
By contrast, environmental cleanup at other sites in New Mexico is subject to rigorous, enforceable cleanup requirements: e.g. Sandia National Laboratories, proceeding under a 2004 consent order issued by the Environment Department; Los Alamos National Laboratory, likewise proceeded under a 2005 consent order, although progress slowed after the order was weakened in 2016; Sparton Technologies site in NW Albuquerque, conducted under a 2000 consent decree filed in federal court; and the BNSF Railway Superfund site in the South Valley, also conducted under a federal consent decree, entered in 2005. Each of these documents contains detailed technical requirements and a schedule with specific deadlines. Each document is enforceable and imposes penalties if the deadlines are not met. Nothing even remotely similar exists for cleanup at Kirtland.
The editorial also suggests that the notice letter was partly motivated to generate “billable hours for lawyers.” The N.M. Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit, public interest law firm. It is not billing hours or charging any legal fees for its work on this matter.
Our constituents live over this plume. They deserve a specific, detailed clean-up plan with enforceable timelines instead of a 20-year science experiment.