News Feature | June 6, 2014

Fuel Leak Causes Largest Toxic Contamination Of An Aquifer In U.S. History

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


A decades-old fuel leak at Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) in New Mexico has contaminated the soil and appears to be a threat to the nearby municipal drinking water supply. 

"The KAFB jet fuel spill—the Air Force calls it a 'leak'—is the largest toxic contamination of an aquifer in U.S. history, and it could be twice the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster," the Albuquerque Alibi reported

The leak dates back to the '50s, according to Colonel Jeff Lanning, a commander at the base. "We found a hole in the pipe...As fuel would sit in this pipe, it was able to escape the pipe and into the soil and drain into the soil and migrate 500 feet down, eventually reaching the water table," Lanning told PBS Newshour

But the fuel was not discovered until four decades after the rupture. "At first, the size of the spill was put at about 157,000 gallons. Over the years though, that number ticked up as high as 24 million, the latest estimate, about six million gallons," the Newshour reported. 

Public interest advocates say the leak is spreading, heading toward municipal drinking water supplies. "You can see that 80 percent of the plume has gone off the base now," said Dave McCoy, of Citizens Action New Mexico, to the Newshour. The fuel contains dangerous chemicals such as ethylene dibromide (EDB). 

Chief operating officer at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority John Stomp spoke to the Newshour. "We want to prevent this from further contaminating the aquifer. For contamination for us is, it’s no EDB or EDB. It’s not EDB at drinking water standards. It’s no EDB, because that’s what our customers are accustomed to," he said. 

A government report released earlier this year said it will be a while before the spill threatens drinking water, but the threat does exist. 

"The good news, if you want to call it that, is that [an EPA report] found that it could be 30 years before this huge chemical plume reaches Albuquerque’s nearest drinking water supplies," ClimateProgress reported

Image credit: "C130 Hercules from Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, New Mexico," Larry Johnson © 2010, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: