Oil Spill Estimates at New Mexico Air Force Base Nearly Twice Exxon Valdez

Although the Air Force has acknowledged a spill from an underground pipe leak at Kirtland Air Force Base back in 1999, officials have recently projected the spill volume to have ballooned to over 24 million gallons - nearly twice the size of the Exxon Valdez accident. A full remediation plan from the Air Force is not expected until 2014, but county officials, environmentalists, and concerned citizens worry that the drinking water of Albuquerque and other outlying areas could be seriously threatened.

Personnel at Kirtland AFB first noticed oil pooling in a fuel storage facility in 1999 that was constructed in the 1950s. Air Force officials found that fuel had been leaking for at least 40 years from an underground pipe and further testing confirmed toxins like benzene in an oil plume that had been present since at least the 1970s. Initial estimates by the Air Force put the total volume of the release at 100,000 gallons, but as more monitoring wells were put in place around the site, the size and scale of the spill kept expanding. The head of Resource Protection at the New Mexico Department of Environment said the extent of the plume's current boundary "is simply not knowable." A report issued by the Air Force also raises concerns that rising groundwater levels may have pushed parts of the plume beneath the water table.

Thus far, the Air Force has committed $50 million for clean up efforts and has hired a spill remediation company called the Shaw Group to help lead its technical response. Soil vapor extraction (SVE) devices were brought in by the Air Force as a short-term solution starting in 2004 that have pulled out 400,000 gallons of oil and contaminants from the ground and they plan to bring in two larger units with 10 times the capacity later this year. Critics have shared their concern that the Air Force should have developed a final remediation plan and delineated the size and location of the oil plume much earlier, before beginning haphazard remediation efforts. Without knowing the exact location of the plume, they contend removing portions of the spill could push it towards municipal water wells and drinking water sources.