Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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In 2014 Newsweek reported that the “900 of the 1,200 or so Superfund sites in America were abandoned military facilities or sites that otherwise support military needs.” These statistics make the U.S. Department of Defense the world’s biggest polluter.

Albuquerque is the home to one of those Superfund sites, with the largest toxic contamination of an aquifer in U.S. history. For 45 years an undetected jet-fuel leak at Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) seeped up to 25 million gallons into the surrounding soil.

Signs of the leak were first discovered when a plume surfaced in the soil in 1992. Despite pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), KAFB did not investigate the plume’s source until 1999, after the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) demanded an investigation.

What they found was four feet of toxic jet fuel containing a deadly mix of chemicals like lead, ethylene dibromide, benzene, toluene and more floating on top of the aquifer. All of these chemicals are either carcinogens, mutagens, or both. The jet fuel leak, attributed to a supply line break, extended several miles north of the boundary of the base beneath nearby neighborhoods.

In 2015, 16 years after the leak’s discovery, the Air Force installed a pump-and-treat system that helped pull the plume back in an effort to stop drinking water wells from becoming contaminated.

In 2020 a group of lawmakers, residents and nonprofit organizations asked a federal judge to enforce deadlines for the cleanup. The judge, however, dismissed the complaint in March 2021, saying the court didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter.

The Air Force has been monitoring more than 170 groundwater wells and some 270 soil-vapor points. Approximately 775,000 gallons of fuel have been removed from the water along with 5,000 tons of contaminated soil.

In July 2021, the U.S. Air Force said it had enough information about the leak to outline its work and would spend the next several months to a year writing a report they’ll submit to the NMED.

Once the state reviews and approves the report, the military will create recommendations for cleanup plans that will be subject to public comment and approval from the state.

New Mexico residents have been attending public outreach events about the leak for over 20 years. They’ll have another opportunity to hear what KAFB has to say about the Superfund site on Thursday, April 28 from 6-8 pm when representatives from KAFB, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) will hold a virtual meeting to update the public and discuss their environmental cleanup efforts.

KAFB status updates will include the Oil/Water Separation, Landfill, Sewage Lagoons and Golf Course Pond Restoration Sites. DOE/SNL discussions of Environmental Restoration activities include: Burn Site Area of Concern, Tijeras Arroyo Groundwater Area of Concern, and Technical Area-V Area of Concern. 

Join the virtual meeting at https://www.zoomgov.com/j/1607577821?pwd=bFNOYnB3YzFCRTIwNGxUN2VONWF3Zz09 follow the Public Meetings link on the left side of the page. On mobile and Apple devices, you may need to download a free app to join the meeting. 

Submit questions titled “April 2022 Public Meeting Question” to brannon.lamar@us.af.mil. in advance. Chat questions during the meeting will be answered only if time permits.