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Environmental Disasters You’ve Never Heard Of: The Kirtland Air Force Base Jet Leak

Pop quiz: What’s the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history?

Answer: The Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel leak.

Pull up a chair and let me tell you a story about governmental negligence, willful denial, and toxic contaminants in a crucial underground aquifer.



Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began life as a private airfield in 1928. By World War II, it had been taken over by the U.S. Army and was a relay point for people and goods destined for the Manhattan Project, less than 100 miles down the road. Today, Kirtland is the world’s largest storage facility for nuclear weapons and its runways are shared between the Air Force and the Albuquerque International Sunport,  making it a joint military–civilian operation.

By 1950 the Army had ceded the base to the Air Force, which was by then heavily into R&D and nuclear testing. A new bulk fuel system to accommodate the base’s swelling air fleet was installed. This system was a sophisticated, modern network of high-tech, underground pipelines that were required to be inspected every five years. The powers that be managed to obtain waivers to prevent that testing from ever taking place. It was a triumph of bureaucracy! When the EPA came calling, the Air Force ignored them. The military industrial complex had taken over the desert.

"Nothing to see here."

“Nothing to see here.”

Turns out the pipeline was faulty. This would have been discovered if it had ever been inspected, but it wasn’t. Thus, the pipeline leaked jet fuel into the soil for 49 years, until 1999. By then, the mysterious underground plume of oil could no longer be denied. The   New Mexico Environmental Department insisted that the Air Force discover its source.

The Air Force conducted a pressure test to check the pipelines. Not only did the test prove that the pipelines were leaking, the pressure blew massive holes in them! Still—the “missing oil,” maybe 100,000 gallons over the course of the 49 years—according to the Kirtland project manager—was simply an accounting error. No one bought that explanation. It was impossible to deny the sad state of the equipment and the fact that a spill of some sort had occurred. But it was anyone’s guess as to its extent.

The scope of the spill became evident only in 2007, when someone dug a well on the base. Eighteen inches of fuel floated over the water table, some 500 feet underground. Initial estimates optimistically guessed the spill was between 1 and 2 million gallons. But further study pushed that number much higher, to somewhere between 6 and 24 million gallons. This puts it in the neighborhood of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of U.S.’s saddest environmental nightmares. However, the Kirtland spill, without the tragic mascot of oil-covered waterfowl, unfolded without media coverage.

Map showing the proximity of the faulty fuel facility and the Veterans Administration Hospital. Source:

Map showing the proximity of the faulty fuel facility and the Veterans Administration Hospital. Source:

The toxic liquid, containing fuel, benzene, toluene, and ethylene dibromide as an anti-knock additive, seeped throughout the aquifer, coated the water table, and threatened the 500,000 inhabitants of Albuquerque in a plume that was over a mile long and 1,600 feet wide and situated less than a mile from the municipal well.

Ethylene dibromide (EDB) is highly toxic. The EPA’s maximum contaminant level according to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 for the substance is zero. Apart from its toxicity, the problem with EDB is that it’s water soluble, meaning it dissolves in water rather than floating on top of it, where it can easily be captured, and it is stable, meaning it persists in the environment long-term without degrading into less toxic compounds. Here’s a pertinent report from 2014: Health Consultation: Evaluation of Potential Exposures: Bulk Fuels Facility Groundwater Plume.

For many years the Air Force remained glib about the massive spill. An Air Force spokesman, Colonel Jeff Lanning, once told reporters that the size of the spill didn’t matter: “When my kid spills Kool-Aid on the carpet, I’m less concerned about how much he spilled than I am about how to get it cleaned up.” Furthermore, according to journalist Dave Correia, “decades after the spill, the Air Force has yet to model the hydraulic properties of the aquifer.” Thus, the publicly distributed maps showing the spill are “overconfidently representing a reality we can’t know [and are] more reassuring fiction than sound hydrological science.”

New fueling facility being installed at Kirtland, replacing Ol’ Leaky. Source: CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TIM KORTE.

New fueling facility being installed at Kirtland, replacing Ol’ Leaky. Source: CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TIM KORTE.

Fortunately, transparency about the disaster has improved in recent years. A website updates civilians on clean up efforts, which include digging wells and pumping the offending liquids out of the ground. It still isn’t happening on schedule, but at least the state Hazardous Waste Bureau is overseeing the process now instead of the Air Force itself. Additionally, the old pipeline system has been torn out and replaced with an above-ground system that is monitored by computer and that makes leaks evident.

Apparently, Albuquerque’s water supply has not been directly affected yet, which is a saving grace, although the plume continues to shift underground and most of it is no longer within the boundaries of the base. According to blogger David Correia, “The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority operates a series of wells in the Ridgecrest area that pump so much water for the city that they produce a cone of depression that acts like a straw, sucking the plume ever closer.”

smart-water-metersClean up efforts are expected to continue until at least 2025 and cost over $100 million of taxpayers’ money. Parties involved include the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineering Center, civilian contractor CB&I, as well as numerous state and local health agencies. As of October, 2015, the latest cleanup report from the New Mexico Environment Department states that four more groundwater monitoring wells have been completed that have helped define the plume and limit its size. Two wells have detected no EDB and a third well has detected EDB at a concentration of 0.08 micrograms per liter. However, Citizen Action New Mexico states that EDB is “less than 3/4 mile from Albuquerque’s supply wells. EDB plume [is] estimated to be 2 years away from contaminating the Veterans Administration Hospital supply well.”

The moral of the story, kids, is that just because the mainstream media isn’t covering it, doesn’t mean it’s not an environmental disaster. We are fortunate to have Google at our disposal, which means that knowledge truly is in our hands these days and our awareness of environmental issues—or any issue—is a personal responsibility.

Clean up of the aquifer spill is taking place throughout Albuquerque as the plume has drifted beyond the borders of the Air Force base. Source:

Clean up of the aquifer spill is taking place throughout Albuquerque as the plume has drifted beyond the borders of the Air Force base. Source:

Posted on: December 2, 2015, 10:25 am Category: Admin

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