Decades-Old Underground Jet Fuel Leak In New Mexico Still Decades From Being Cleaned Up

A construction crew works on a $10.4 million fueling facility on Monday, May 24, 2010, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The project replaces a 1950s-era bulk fuel facility where leaking pipes created an underground fuel plume. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TIM KORTE
A construction crew works on a $10.4 million fueling facility on Monday, May 24, 2010, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The project replaces a 1950s-era bulk fuel facility where leaking pipes created an underground fuel plume. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TIM KORTE

Kirtland Air Force Base, located on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a major hub for Air Force operations, occupying over 50,000 acres and employing thousands of people. It is also the cause of one of the largest fuel leaks in history, up to twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Since being established as a U.S. Army airfield in 1941, planes have consumed millions of gallons of jet fuel, stored and distributed around the base by a system of tanks and pipes. In 1999 the Air Force discovered that an underground pipe at the aircraft fuel loading facility was leaking.

“In the early 1950s, the base replaced leaking tanks and aging pipelines with a new fuels facility it promised would modernize and make more safe the handling and distribution of jet fuel,” reported the Albuquerque Alibi. “The facility received its first trainload of jet fuel and aviation gas in 1953. Almost immediately, and for the next 45 years, it has leaked jet fuel into the surrounding soil.”

Jet fuel is a distilled form of crude oil that includes chemical additives such as other hydrocarbons, antioxidants and anti-freeze. The Kirtland spill contained a number of hazardous chemicals, including ethylene dibromide or EDB, which was banned by the EPA for commercial or industrial use more than 40 years ago. According to the EPA, “individuals who consume EDB in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL), 0.05 μg/l (or parts per billion), could experience problems with the liver, stomach, reproductive system, or kidneys, and may have an increased risk of cancer.”


“When EDB is released into soils, it almost always makes its way into groundwater,” reported the Alibi. “It is highly soluble and stable and persists in soils and underground water. It’s hard to find and even harder (and more expensive) to get out.”

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that a new report released Monday by the EPA found that it could be 30 years before this huge chemical plume reaches Albuquerque’s nearest drinking water supplies.

The draft report was made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Albuquerque-based group Citizen Action New Mexico.

According to the report, the chemical EDB has migrated thousands of feet toward drinking water wells connected to the aquifer that provides 60 percent of Albuquerque’s drinking water.

A computer model developed by the EPA at the request of the New Mexico Environment Department found that placing recovery wells around the edges of the plume, which act to remove contaminants, and using an aggressive pump-and-treat program, could avoid unsafe impacts to drinking water in most cases.


“It takes it out of crisis mode,” Tom Blaine, who is overseeing cleanup efforts for the New Mexico Environment Department, told the Albuquerque Journal.

The 30-year time frame before contamination is longer than expected — Blaine’s staff had previously estimated that contamination might reach the nearest well in as little as five years.

A report from last year by Citizen Action New Mexico Executive Director Dave McCoy is heavily critical of Kirtland Air Force Base’s oversight and management of the extended crisis.

“Kirtland failed to conduct an early and complete investigation into the leaking at the bulk fuels facility, missing an opportunity to remediate and halt the spread of a massive plume of aviation gas and jet fuel contamination that is now estimated at 24,000,000 gallons, the largest toxic spill into a public water supply in U.S. history,” writes McCoy. “Kirtland dragged its boots by not comprehensively investigating the integrity of the entire fuels facility for many decades and remained conveniently silent about early internal reports showing pipeline problems.”

The extent and mismanagement of the New Mexico jet fuel spill is also currently relevant after a major chemical spill in West Virginia contaminated 300,000 people’s water supply last week, preventing them from using their tap water for drinking, cooking or even bathing.

Thousands of gallons of a chemical used to clean coal leaked from a storage facility into the state’s drinking water supply. While the contamination problem is now under control, the need for tighter restrictions and better management to avoid similar situations in the future is far from resolved. The facility had not been inspected by state or federal authorities since 1991. Also, three years ago a team of experts with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board urged the state to “create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.” The report went nowhere in the three years leading up to the disaster, reported Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette


If one good thing could come out of the crisis, it is the opportunity for better environmental oversight and regulation in West Virginia.

“The inaction [of Freedom Industries] is an indictment to the idea that companies can self-report and self-regulate,” State Delegate Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) told ClimateProgress. “I absolutely see some legislation coming out of all this.”

Many in the state are more doubtful that anything significant will happen, and expect that the immediate concerns will soon fade from memory. This perspective is not unwarranted, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) took the opportunity to say today that there’s already enough regulations on the books.

“Someone ought to be held accountable,” he said regarding the spill in West Virginia. “We need to look at those regulations that are cumbersome, over-the-top, and costing the economy jobs. That is where our focus is, and should continue.”

Whether a spill occurred 60 years ago or six days ago, accountability is indeed important. But blaming complex regulations is not a constructive act towards improving company responsibility, industry oversight and public safety — including clean drinking water.