Kirtland Spill: Get Serious

With the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill now estimated at 24 million gallons, it’s time for New Mexico’s U.S. Senators to get serious about cleaning it up.

Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich need to come to hold formal hearings with their power of subpoena, and require all associated parties to testify under oath about how such a calamity could happen, and what can be done to make that massive amount of polluted water drinkable again.

The Kirtland contamination could well be the largest jet fuel spill by the Air Force in the continental United States. And it will take decades effort to make it right.

Crews have been working since l981 to clean jet fuel out of the ground water at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. The spill there was only one half a million gallons. It’s already cost taxpayers $131 million, and the Air Force just let another clean up contract for $41.5 million more. And they are not anywhere near through.

Imagine how long 24 million gallons of poisonous jet fuel will take to clean up and how much it will cost!  We could be looking at a hundred years of effort and perhaps a billion of dollars or more, if one compares what’s happened in Victorville with what’s happened in Albuquerque.

I suspect the feds may have to condemn property near the base, set up a huge treatment facility, and build an independent natural gas power supply. That’s not a good prospect for an upscale neighborhood like Ridgecrest.

If this were the l960s, New Mexico Senator Joseph M. Montoya would have held hearings in Albuquerque to get to the bottom of this terrible mess and put pressure on the Air Force to stop gabbing and prevaricating and make a realistic budget to get its fuel not only out of our water, but make that water drinkable again.

And that’s exactly what Udall and Heinrich should do right now. The Kirtland spill is of historic proportions.

If the jet fuel plume gets into the biggest wells in the city, less than a mile away, it’s possible that as much as 20 percent, almost a quarter, of the city’s underground water will be affected. That area of the aquifer is known as the sweet spot and it is much deeper than the underground water in the rest of the Middle Rio Grande Basin.

Polluting it has the potential of being a disastrous game changer for our city – for its health and its economy. Imagine what that would mean when we’re try to cope with a major drought in New Mexico and Colorado? The city’s growth prospects could plummet. We’re too big as it is for our water supply. It’s been that way for years. But reducing our size and raising the quality of our growth should happen by public choice, not because of an avoidable environmental disaster.

Something definitive and public needs to be done. A Senatorial hearing would be able to get solid information, to track down who knew what when, and to find out if it is possible to make that contaminated water drinkable again, and how much that might cost in real money.

The Kirtland spill is consistent with the rest of the Air Force’s extreme carelessness with its jet fuel and industrial waste. The Air Force is involved in at least 42 Super Fund sites contaminated with jet fuel and industrial waste. There could be as many as 50. Their track record at cleaning up their messes does not paint an optimistic picture for us.

That’s why we need senatorial clout to jumpstart this process and tell the public the truth of what its facing.

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

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