The Environmental Disaster You've Never Heard Of
December 20, 2013 9:55 AM   Subscribe

24 million gallons of jet fuel have been leaking from Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base for 60 some years. And nobody seems very concerned about it.
posted by fontophilic (41 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
At the end of every fiscal quarter bases fly endlessly and dump fuel to keep their allotments up. The leak probably serves a purpose to keep their allotment up, or a clandestine allotment. The military, world wide, no matter whose military is the largest environmental disaster ongoing in the world.
posted by Oyéah at 9:57 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Thanks goodness petroleum is a renewable resource.
posted by Gelatin at 10:03 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


In the Road Warrior badlands of the future, the wars for water and fuel will be the same war...

Still, ugh, what a frustrating, disgusting mess.
posted by insert.witticism.here at 10:15 AM on December 20, 2013


At the end of every fiscal quarter bases fly endlessly and dump fuel to keep their allotments up.

I can empathize with them using the fuel to get some practice, because that's not much different than sending the department to training or upgrading computers just to burn up extra budget, but dumping fuel? WTF. That's just pure intentional waste.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:19 AM on December 20, 2013


A vent pipe near his house was was the source of Walter White's lung cancer.
posted by planetesimal at 10:25 AM on December 20, 2013


At the end of every fiscal quarter bases fly endlessly and dump fuel to keep their allotments up.

If true (which I don't doubt), this is the dumbest thing any dummy has ever dumbed.

Have fun paying back China, numbskulls.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:45 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


It seems like for years the Air Force pushed off state regulatory agencies regarding tank inspections. Citizen Action NM has a fairly good timeline of events: timeline.

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is the regulatory agency overseeing the site, specifically the Hazardous Waste Bureau. NMED has been told by its upper management to be "business friendly" which means that the Air Force is, again, running the show. Shaw Environmental is the contractor working for the Air Force, Shaw's record so far is not great in terms of collecting proper data or hiring competent sub-contractors.

Here is the EPA's factsheet on EDB.
posted by backwords at 10:48 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


dumping fuel? WTF. That's just pure intentional waste.

It's just the tip of the iceberg. I know Navy people who used to talk about ordering up cases of tools and then dumping them overboard while afloat, in order to keep their allocations for the following year or some similar crappy reason.

There's almost always some shitty bit of accounting that drives these sort of perverse practices. At the end of the line it's just some low-level flunky trying to make sure that they don't get the shaft, versus somebody else who does behave shittily, and there's a behavioral race to the bottom as a result.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:59 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Live by the sword... die by the sword.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 11:05 AM on December 20, 2013


So when (if?) they do "clean it up", where do they put it?
posted by IndigoJones at 11:31 AM on December 20, 2013


Holy shit. I've lived close to Kirtland for 10 years and have never heard of this.
posted by hellslinger at 11:32 AM on December 20, 2013


So the Air Force can afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fuel (plus the associated cleanup costs) but somehow they can't find the money to pay for trash pickup in our cubicles.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:37 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Live by the sword... die by the sword.

And if you don't use the swords up by the end of the year, find a place to dump 'em or you might not get enough new swords next year.
posted by davejay at 11:45 AM on December 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Reuters put out a great/absolutely horrifying investigative piece about the DoD's accounting.

Behind the Pentagon’s doctored ledgers, a running tally of epic waste


"For two decades, the U.S. military has been unable to submit to an audit, flouting federal law and concealing waste and fraud totaling billions of dollars..."
posted by forkisbetter at 12:16 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


At the end of every fiscal quarter bases fly endlessly and dump fuel to keep their allotments up.

Heh. The university I attended did the same thing for their central heating plant. Most of the buildings on the campus were heated by steam supplied from a large, university-owned boiler plant. Said plant burned nice, dirty coal. It was nice heat through winter, but they kept the boilers going well into April and sometimes May in order to make sure the bean counters didn't cut their budget for coal.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:23 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shouldn't the IG be all over this? Like, waste is just as bad as fraud or abuse. Sigh.
posted by Skwirl at 12:24 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


To be clear, there's no suggestion in the article that the Air Force was intentionally dumping fuel in order to maintain spending levels or something. There is a leaky fuel pipeline, which the Air Force has repeatedly refused to acknowledge or fix, which is leaking huge amounts of jet fuel and associated deadly carcinogens into the aquifer since possibly as far back as the 1950s (the fuel additive EDB has been found in the aquifer and the Air Force stopped using it in 1975 because it is extraordinarily toxic).
posted by whir at 12:31 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I know Navy people who used to talk about ordering up cases of tools and then dumping them overboard while afloat

I was also told about this by a freshly ex-Navy guy except in his story it was "thousands of brass fittings" that were dumped overboard.
posted by telstar at 12:39 PM on December 20, 2013


Use-it-or-lose-it accounting, where programs are punished, that is, budget cut, for being cost efficient. It's a greater sin in government to be under budget than over.
posted by bonehead at 12:50 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


C'mon guys. That's not "dumping", it's artificial micro-reef construction.
posted by planetesimal at 12:58 PM on December 20, 2013


Funny how waste in the military isn't subject to the same controls that the private sector is. All the wasted funds would help buy better kit for troops that are lacking it, and we wouldn't have a big spill to clean up.
posted by arcticseal at 1:16 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bonehead: That's not entirely true. Going over your annual appropriation is a felony. Going under is just considered mismanagement. Both are bad but over is definitely a lot worse. Of course, the motivation for padding one's request to Congress and then buying pens with the leftover at the last minute is so that one can avoid the worst case scenario of going over. Plus, you always have lots of pens.
posted by Skwirl at 1:53 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I moved to New Mexico (Socorro, not Albuquerque), the first thing I was told to do was to get to the "Water and Ice Store" and buy a refillable N-gallon jug. And then do weekly trips to re-fill my drinking water. It was just a matter of fact thing that the tap water was not good to drink because of all the contamination.

(There was a flattened mountain top outside town where they apparently (strictly hearsay) ran a jet-propelled sled to test warhead impacts, and the rumors always mumbled about depleted uranium.)

And what about all the poor people who can't afford weekly trips to the Water and Ice Store? Shrug. That's what you get when you live in one of the poorest states in the nation. (On the other hand, un-drinkable tap water is hardly a novelty for a third-worlder like me.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:31 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Move along; nothing to see here. This is just the invisible hand regulating a free market.
posted by carping demon at 2:45 PM on December 20, 2013


How about we attack the problem at its source -- namely, the idiotic notion that if one does not use X resources within a year, they will get less than X should they ask for it in the future. I partly blame the idiots for dumping fuel, but don't forget the even bigger idiots who are incentivizing the waste in the first place.

Every person who says "I'm not going to assent to you your request because you didn't use this much last time" needs to get dragged into the street and forced to find a job in a whole other career.
posted by chimaera at 3:17 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


(There was a flattened mountain top outside town where they apparently (strictly hearsay) ran a jet-propelled sled to test warhead impacts, and the rumors always mumbled about depleted uranium.)

That would not be a surprise; I worked part-time at the facility there west of town in the late 70s and they were always doing all sorts of testing like that -- cluster bombs, warheads, explosives, etc. There were mishaps too -- I remember one time they were testing some sort of antitank weapon that misfired and went flying off into the mountains.

They also had all sorts of surplus aircraft, tanks, parts, etc. for testing. There was a pretty steady black-market trade in the gauges and instruments lifted from the cockpits of the surplus aircraft.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 3:23 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gross.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:44 PM on December 20, 2013


My wife used to work as a hydro-geologist monitoring the spread of these leaks.

Just about *EVERY* airforce base in the country has one of these. It may not *STILL* be leaking, but its in the water table from the original leak, they just monitor things to make sure they are not spreading. But alot of the monitoring wells are in highly residential neighbourhoods where the trees literally aspirate liquid poly-vinyl-chloride into the air....
posted by anthroprose at 3:49 PM on December 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


anthroprose: "poly-vinyl-chloride"

You're thinking of vinyl chloride. Chlorinated solvents like TCE and PCE used in dry cleaning and parts cleaning, the latter of which were pretty common at military installations, can breakdown in the environment through reductive dechlorination. The problem is that VC is where the reaction typically stalls out in a groundwater plume, and VC is the most carcinogenic of all the breakdown products. I don't think it could "aspirate from the trees" but it can certainly create a hazardous vapor intrusion from off gasing directly from groundwater.

This is an interesting post and I'm going to spend some time reading it because on it's face it seems *really* hard to believe that no one is doing anything. Regardless of what NM Environmental does/does not do, there are still federal laws in place to deal with contamination like this.
posted by Big_B at 4:11 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I lived for 7 years in a neighborhood about 2 miles north of Bullhead Park back in the 1950s. If I lived there now, I'd be packing to move instead of writing this.
The KAFB jet fuel spill—the Air Force calls it a “leak”—is the largest toxic contamination of an aquifer in US history, and it could be twice the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster.
The leaked fuel is even nastier than the crude oil leaked by Exxon.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:37 PM on December 20, 2013


Every person who says "I'm not going to assent to you your request because you didn't use this much last time" needs to get dragged into the street and forced to find a job in a whole other career.

?

I get what you're saying, but I don't thing very many mefites disagree that the military as a whole could stand to spend less money. It rolls down from the top. I have less money than last year. Your program didn't spend as much money as you asked for, nothing substantially changed in the requirements, and yet you asked for just as much money again. That obviously requires some explanation.

Budgets are estimates. Sometimes they're going to be high, sometimes low. Are you saying that if your guess was high, well, you shouldn't have to revise it down after the data comes in? That's also wasteful.

I'm not picking on you, just saying that's only a slightly less simplistic view than the people wasting money on purpose. It's a hard problem to not incentivize the wrong thing.
posted by ctmf at 9:17 PM on December 20, 2013


As a former Navy guy, I also find the "thousands of brass fittings" story hard to believe. You can't suddenly order a crap ton of parts over your allowance, and your inventory can't suddenly drop to zero. You'd open up a huge can of worms doing that. Where did your old ones go? Why didn't you order them in small batches as you used them? Where are the work records for where you expended the old ones out of inventory? Is there a recent issue with brass fitting failure? Do we need to preemptively replace them on every ship?

Nah, you have to break one thing that's really expensive, plus order a lot of copier paper and pens.
posted by ctmf at 9:28 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Going over your annual appropriation is a felony. Going under is just considered mismanagement.

Last comment, I promise:
Going under can be incriminating, too. Say, I see that this maintenance item that you guys are supposed to be doing weekly uses X dollars worth of parts and consumables. Why have you spent so much less than 52X this year?

Gulp.
posted by ctmf at 9:37 PM on December 20, 2013


Soooooooo ... I guess the Blue Angels could have flown this year after all.

I'm having trouble keeping track of who's being punished and why. On the other hand, I'm starting to comprehend the fall of empires much more fully.
posted by Twang at 10:21 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


it seems *really* hard to believe that no one is doing anything. Regardless of what NM Environmental does/does not do, there are still federal laws in place to deal with contamination like this.
posted by Big_B


From the article: "The Air Force largely ignored requests by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the plume’s source and extent and instead, in 1994, gave itself a waiver from conducting military-mandated tests of the facility pipeline."
posted by 445supermag at 10:45 PM on December 20, 2013


I find it bizarre and sickening that a government department would be punished for efficiency, thus leading people within that department to do shit like this, and ordering too many pens and whatnot.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. I wonder sometimes what the archaeologists of the future, the ones who will rebuild the profession after Western society collapses and drags the rest of the world down with it, will make of the USA. It seems likely that they will conclude that deliberate poisoning of the environment was a fundamental religious belief in the culture, because the actual truth--that no fucks are given except when it comes to the Almighty Dollar--would be too fucking weird to believe.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:38 AM on December 21, 2013


Let me preface this by saying that I have no connection to New Mexico or any Federal Facilities. I only chimed in earlier to clarify the vinyl chloride comment and to add a note that the headline seemed pretty hard to believe based on my experience as an environmental regulator in another state. I didn't have time to even read the article (I broke rule number 1!) but posted anyway.

445supermag: " it seems *really* hard to believe that no one is doing anything. Regardless of what NM Environmental does/does not do, there are still federal laws in place to deal with contamination like this.
posted by Big_B


From the article: "The Air Force largely ignored requests by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the plume’s source and extent and instead, in 1994, gave itself a waiver from conducting military-mandated tests of the facility pipeline."
"

And then the next sentence: Under pressure from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the Air Force finally conducted pressure tests of the pipelines in 1999.

And duh they failed spectacularly. I've worked on military installations in previous jobs as a consultant. As one retired Navy officer told me "If we used it, we dumped it." Now letting it go to 1999 is not excusable, but there is a little to be said for people just not understanding this stuff was going to be a problem. It's impossible to defend post Love Canal however.

Here is the State of New Mexico's Environment Department Hazardous Waste Bureau web page for the KAFB Bulk Fuels Facility Spill. It's pretty clear that there is a lot being done about the fuel spill. The latest weekly report shows they have an active groundwater monitoring program, and direct push soil sampling program, and a planned SVE system. (When you are having to submit weekly reports, in my experience that means you are on thin ice with the regulator.) I see the word "pre-design" frequently which is a big clue for me about where the progress on this site is, since there doesn't seem to be a comprehensive summary anywhere.

In the state I work in, big sites like this, even if they are not National Priority List (Superfund) sites, follow CERCLA guidance. The process for investigation and remediation goes like this -->Remedial investigation -->Feasibility Study --> Remedial Action Plan (or I think Record of Decision for federal sites) --> Remedy Design and Implementation. In the midst of all the data gathering and feasibility analysis very frequently there are Interim Remedial Actions or emergency cleanup work that is done. It looks like this site is still in the RI phase, with some interim/emergency work being done as they find problems. There is a process that is followed, and it sucks but sometimes it takes years. And then once the plan is in place the cleanup can take decades. You can't simply pull all the groundwater up and put it somewhere. I have seen, however, in places where public water supplies are directly impacted the responsible party ends up supplying water to those people. The soil vapor problem is another concern, and I've seen SVE systems installed in crawl spaces of homes.

I still think the one, single link article posted about this is pretty alarmist. It completely leaves out all the work being done right now and over the last several years that is pretty clearly documented on the NMED webpage. BUT, one of the things I love (not being sarcastic) is the ability for community groups and progressive media to really describe the contaminants and what they are/where they come from/what they can do (100% will get cancer!). We need more of this. It's sort of like the climate change post and discussion that followed - alarms but what are we supposed to do??? Well sites like this are easier to fix than climate change, and this is how we fix it. By being informed, and by shaking the trees and rocking the boat. The regulators have a lot of power, but there are politics and games at every level. But when you get the public and the press involved they can't be ignored.
posted by Big_B at 7:22 AM on December 21, 2013


Four feet of EBD-poisoned fuel floating on the aquifer. For decades. But the article is "alarmist."
posted by five fresh fish at 8:51 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not four feet of EDB. It's jet fuel with some EDB. From one of the reports I can find the highest concentration in the shallow zone is 210 ug/L. Here is why I think the article is alarmist: It says "The agency determined the maximum safe level of EDB in drinking water—the level at which no adverse effects would likely occur—is zero. In other words, the EPA considers no amount of EDB in drinking water safe for human health." This is somewhat misleading as the EPA has set a Maximum Contaminant Level of EDB of 0.05 ug/L. We could go into a long discussion of why this is not zero but I'm not a toxicologist so I'm not going to try to convince anyone that that number is ok. Would I drink water with 0.04 in it? Not knowingly, but legally a purveyor can sell it to you. I'd love to change that but that's a whole bigger fight.

It's also alarmist because of the "NOTHING IS BEING DONE!" when in fact, lots of work is being done. The release has been stopped, they are investigating, and they supposedly are working on a plan. More links in this post would have been nice....

I'm still trying to find actual monitoring reports with plume maps to see how close this is to the muni wells but I'm striking out. This looks like this is probably the best source: http://www.kirtland.af.mil/environment.asp. Either way we have an "immediate threat to human health of the environment" check box in the environmental cleanup world, and this doesn't check the box for me. They're probably going to be running a groundwater extraction and treatment system for decades though.

Trust me, I've fought the "can we just cleanup everything" battles before and lost. Lots of money and research in toxicology involved in letting "good enough" be the finish line. But for example in California there is a directive to cleanup groundwater to "background" levels. There isn't any EDB in the background.
posted by Big_B at 10:35 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


As the solution to pollution is dilution, the right answer is clearly to continue to leak clean jet fuel from the pipeline.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on December 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


"For two decades, the U.S. military has been unable to submit to an audit, flouting federal law and concealing waste and fraud totaling billions of dollars..."

And yet you get one welfare queen...

Yeah, husband works DoD under Air Farce. After reporting several millions of dollars in issues to the Waste, Fraud, and Abuse program with no feedback, he finally contacted someone who told them not to bother them for less than a quarter billion. The nice writeups you see in the AF promotional lit about someone getting one of the WFA awards--it's just showbiz. Comment from someone familiar with the program: WFA exists to uncover the massive amounts of money misplaced, and then bury the evidence so deep that it can't ever be uncovered again.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:26 PM on December 21, 2013


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