“breakdown” in Kirtland fuel spill cleanup

Albuquerque’s municipal water utility, in a strikingly worded memo yesterday, said the latest plans for managing a huge groundwater spill on and adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base represent “a breakdown” in what was once a partnership among the water utility, the Air Force, and the New Mexico Environment Department.

The new plans back away from aggressive state-mandated efforts to clean up the spill, and weaken ongoing efforts to characterize the extent and seriousness of the contamination, according to the memo. According to the Water Utility, the new plans are “disconnected from the stated goal of protecting drinking water and the aquifer and undermine Water Authority’s ability to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water”:

contaminated groundwater spreading beneath Albuquerque

The spill, discovered in 1999 but likely dating to the 1950s, came from a long slow leak in an Air Force aviation fuel pipeline adjacent to the base runways. As you can see from the map, it has spread nearly a mile off of the base, moving beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood. Because of its proximity to Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority drinking water wells, it is by far New Mexico’s most serious groundwater contamination problem.

A tense relationship between the ABCWUA, the Air Force, and state regulators had thawed in 2012-13, as the New Mexico Environment Department and the Air Force invited the Water Utility into the decision-making process. But the new memo, from the Water Utility’s Rick Shean (a graduate of the UNM Water Resources Program!), confirms what I and others have been hearing for some months – that the relationship has broken down.

This poses interesting governance questions that I’ve used as a case study in my new academic life. The Water Utility does not have legal standing as a regulator here – that role falls to the New Mexico Environment Department. But the Water Utility, especially under the leadership of Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins and Water Utility Chief Operations Officer John Stomp, plays a critical role in looking out for the interests of the community. We made significant progress after the Air Force and NMED invited ABCWUA into the decision-making tent.

This issue is on the agenda for tonight’s (Wed. March 21, 2018) ABCWUA board meeting. 5 p.m. at the Council Chambers, Albuquerque City Hall building.


  1. John – thanks for discussing this. At the November 2017 ABCWUA Board meeting, the ABCWUA’s contractor, Intera, presented its very harsh critique of the Air Force’s mandated RCRA Facility Investigation (RFI) report. The AF’s senior advisor said that the AF was “more in agreement” with Intera’s comments than it might appear. When asked by Commissioner Maggie Hart-Stebbins to comment on the RFI report, Diane Agnew of NMED said that, “the Intera report was very much in line with the comments we had from our review”, including NMED’s assessment that the AF was relying on “erroneous data and mis-characterizing what was happening at the site”. A workplan to address NMED’s concerns was due Nov 8 and had not been received by the Nov 16 date of the Board meeting. The new NMED 2018 Strategic Plan for the KAFB BFF plume does not reflect the statements made at the Nov Board meeting by NMED regarding the Intera critique of the AF’s assessment of the problem and its resolution. The question, then, is: what happened between last Summer when NMED wrote to the AF with its concerns (voiced at the Nov Board meeting) and the Strategic Plan release?

  2. Posted to facebook:
    Another example of the current political climate’s impact on real people — government (and industry) cannot be trusted to do the right thing without regulatory enforcement…, no consequences = big consequences.

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