Which spill to cover?
Some environmental journalism tradecraft here. There is a nagging problem for reporters who cover contamination problems. As a society, we spill nasty shit all the time, in all sorts of places, from the sheen of oil and lead wheel weight residues on our streets to the nitrates beneath dairies to the old dry cleaners scattered across our cities to the PCBs running out municipal stormwater drains. The New Mexico Environment Department is currently monitoring 27 spills in the metro area that I know about in which hazardous contaminants have reached the groundwater.
People who work these problems for a living use a simple formula: risk equals probability times consequence. That is, what are the chances of the contaminant reaching a pathway via which it could threaten human or environmental health (probability) and how bad would it be should that happen (consequence)?
By that measure, the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel leak that I wrote about in yesterday’s newspaper pretty much tops the list right now in New Mexico, which is why I afforded it the treatment I did (sub/ad req):
A new estimate puts the volume of a Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel leak at nearly 8 million gallons.
Those are Exxon Valdez-scale numbers, and the fuel is slowly creeping through the water table beneath an Albuquerque neighborhood toward municipal water wells. State officials say there are serious questions about whether the Air Force is acting quickly enough to deal with the problem.
“It’s probably the biggest groundwater contamination problem in the state right now,” said Bruce Thomson, head of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.
More than 10 years after the spill was discovered, the Air Force still does not know the full extent of the contamination, according to a sharply worded April letter from the New Mexico Environment Department to the Air Force.
The letter labels the spill “a significant threat to human health and the environment, particularly to well water in urban neighborhoods adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base.”
There appears to be no danger to the people living on top of the spreading contamination. The real danger is to Albuquerque’s water supply. Two municipal water supply wells are in the fuel’s path. If it reaches them, the wells will have to be shut down.