Why aren’t more people in ABQ concerned about the Kirtland jet fuel spill?

During the past few months, a sense of dismay and outrage about the situation has been growing in me. In March, V.B. Price wrote a NM Mercury article entitled “Kirtland Spill: Get Serious,” which was commendable for its honesty in raising red flags. I began to pay more attention to this issue. Over the summer, I read with growing alarm various Albuquerque Journal articles by John Fleck. Fleck reported that the current effort to clean up the spill, the soil vapor extraction system, was malfunctioning repeatedly and even when running was only able to extract about half of the contaminants originally projected. Even more disturbing was Fleck’s report of the July meeting of the Water Advisory Board where Mark Evans, a scientist with the Center for Disease Control, presented his recommendations. What does Mr. Evans think should be done to address this situation? Shut down the threatened drinking wells, once contamination appears in them. What? Shut down the drinking wells? In a time of extreme drought? I decided that I needed to attend the July 30 public meeting to learn more.

On July 30, my husband and I, along with about 50 Albuquerque citizens,  attended the public meeting at Cesar Chavez Community Center where Mark Evans presented his report entitled “Evaluation of Potential Exposures: Bulk Fuel Facility Groundwater Plume.” Several people in the room were so anxious to ask questions that they had to be told repeatedly to let Mr. Evans make his presentation first. The presentation itself was undermined by the fact that the Powerpoint font was too small for most people to be able to read. However, hard copies of the report were available, and I picked one up. Basically the report lists the 13 toxic contaminants and discusses the various pathways of contamination: vapor intrusion, contaminants in indoor air, contaminants in soil gas and outdoor air, and contaminants in groundwater. It concludes that none of these pose an imminent risk because of “ongoing and proposed remedial actions.”

However, when questioned about the “remedial actions,” Evans shook his head and admitted that “they aren’t going well…they’re not sufficient.” I began to get the impression that Evans’ report was trying to put a happy face on a very unhappy situation. Moreover, as one knowledgeable person in the audience pointed out, Evan’s presentation focused primarily on the contaminant benzene, whereas the greatest risk to human health comes from EDB (ethylene dibromide), a substance so toxic that ½ tsp. can contaminate 8 million gallons of water. EDB is also partially soluble in water, and is currently present in substantial amounts in the groundwater near Kirtland--now less than a mile from the nearby drinking wells (Ridgecrest 3 and 5 and Burton 5).

Evans tried to calm the restive crowd by stressing that if contaminants reach the drinking wells, they will be shut down. However, the crowd was not pacified by this idea. One person invoked the drought and called the idea “stupid,” and others applauded this evaluation. Another person pointed out that if the nearby wells are shut down, the contaminants will just get drawn into the other wells over time. Mr. Evans acknowledged that if additional wells have to be shut down, Albuquerque could lose as much as 30% of its underground drinking water.

I left the meeting feeling despair that our pristine aquifer, a precious natural resource and our main buffer against current and future drought, is now seriously threatened. It appears now that it is only a matter of time until our drinking water is contaminated with some extremely toxic chemicals. It will be difficult or impossible to clean up or contain the contamination at this point, as much of it is now underneath water, a consequence of using river water for part of our water supply, which has caused the level of the aquifer to rise and submerge most of the jet fuel.

The Air Force must be forced to expand its insufficient remedial action and do whatever can be done to save our aquifer, despite the cost. The Journal reported last week that there is a new cleanup plan from the New Mexico Environment Department in the works. This plan mandates that 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water be removed by October 2013 and that the cleanup of ethylene dibromide begin by the end of 2014.  It is not clear why we have to wait over a year to begin the cleanup of the EDB. Although the new plan appears to be a step in the right direction, we need more public involvement to insure that everything possible is being done, as quickly as possible. This spill was discovered in 1999, and the officials charged with assessment and remedial action have accomplished very little in the past 14 years. We can only hope that it is not too late to save our aquifer, and that an awakened citizenry can make a difference.

The spreading toxic fuel now threatens not just the neighborhoods in SE Albuquerque but the entire metro area, which will be plunged into even more serious drought if more and more of our drinking wells have to be shut down. Unless we develop more effective remedial actions very quickly, within a few years Albuquerque and this entire region will be facing a major water crisis. Soon we may be facing the choice between having an inadequate supply of water or using contaminated water.

Note:

The report by Mr. Evans (aka “Health Consultation”) can be accessed at the following website:
http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/news/displaynews.asp?PRid=2560

Public comment on the report is being solicited through 8/26/13 (although comments submitted after that date may still be read). The email address for public comment can be found on the website also.

Here are the comments that I submitted about the report:

I see two main issues with this “Health Consultation:”

1. The report says on p. 3 that it “will not address the efficacy of the proposed remedial actions on the potential for future exposures to contaminants from contaminated groundwater.”  However, the optimistic conclusion (p. 25) that “future exposures, which are possible, will be prevented if ongoing and prospective remedial actions are implemented as planned” rests on the assumption that current and future remedial actions will prevent future exposure. On what basis can we assume this if we do not address the efficacy of the remedial actions? Mr. Evans, when questioned at the July 30 public meeting admitted that the current soil vapor extraction efforts are “not going well… they’re not sufficient.” On p. 17 of the report, Mr. Evans asserts that the remedial actions “will be upgraded in the near future.” On 8/22/13 the Albuquerque Journal had a front-page story announcing a more aggressive clean-up effort, spearheaded by the NM Environment Department. Kirtland has been instructed to remove 1.5 million gallons (out of the estimated 24 million gallons) of contamination by October of this year and to begin removing ethylene dibromide (see #2 below) by the end of 2014.  While these renewed efforts are commendable, it remains to be seen if they will be sufficient. As a result, it is impossible at this point to have confidence in the ability of remedial action to prevent future contamination of the drinking wells.

2. The report gives equal time to four possible pathways of contamination, whereas it appears that by far the greatest danger to human health comes from groundwater contamination. Similarly, the report focuses the most attention on the contaminant benzene, whereas it seems clear that the primary danger to human health is from ethylene dibromide (EDB), a highly toxic carcinogen. Both of these distortions serve to divert attention from the very real dangers. EDB is partially soluble in water and since we now know that most of the contamination is under water, it seems deceptive to say “EDB may selectively dissolve into and migrate down-gradient with groundwater flow” (p. 5); in fact it seems quite certain that EDB is migrating down gradient. The only real question is how fast. The March 2012 presentation to the Water Utility Board by the Citizen Action group reported that the EDB plume moved 1200 feet closer to the Ridgecrest wells between Dec. 2010 and July 2011—in just 7 months. How much farther has it moved in the past two years? It appears that it is only a matter of time…perhaps as little as 2-3 years…until this very toxic chemical contaminates the drinking wells. Moreover, the fact that EDB is toxic at very low levels (officially 50 parts per trillion, although 10 parts per trillion is a safer threshold) makes detection extremely difficult. The renewed remedial plan by the Environment Department (see #1 above) mandates that the Air Force begin cleaning up the EDB by the end of 2014. This may be too late.

3. Mr. Evans seems to understand that the contamination will inevitably contaminate the drinking water and proposes that when the drinking wells do begin show signs of contamination, they will be shut down. This does not seem a viable solution for two reasons: 1) to lose as much as 30% of Albuquerque’s underground drinking water supply in a time of extreme drought could be catastrophic and 2) if the near drinking wells are shut down, the contamination would be likely to be drawn into wells further down-gradient, eventually contaminating most or all of Albuquerque’s drinking wells.

This is an urgent situation, which calls for immediate and more aggressive remedial action. Now that most of the contamination is under water, it will be very difficult or impossible to extract it. EDB, in particular, will be very challenging to extract because it is (partially) soluble in water. Other types of remediation or containment need to be developed and implemented quickly in order to avert a catastrophic water crisis in the near future. In my view, the present “Health Consultation” report understates the risk (for the reasons stated above), although by acknowledging that drinking wells will probably need to be shut down, red flags have been raised for those of us who live in this drought-stricken region.




This piece was written by:

Beverly Burris's photo

Beverly Burris

Beverly Burris grew up mostly in Houston, Texas but left at the age of 19, seeking political asylum in the Northeast. She received a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University in 1982, and came to Albuquerque in 1986 to take a job in the Sociology Department of UNM, where she taught for over 25 years, retiring in 2012. In addition to writing scholarly books and articles during the past 30 years, she has occasionally published some journalism on selected topics. Now that she is retired, she plans to write more journalism about issues that concern her: climate change, the fact that our health care system is by far the most expensive but least effective system in the industrialized world (and why), the demise of the Democratic Party as a force for progressive change and the political implications of this, etc. She lives in the SE Heights with her husband Pete, a retired social worker and artist.

Contact Beverly Burris

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