More Questions: Kirtland Contamination

Few commonly used things are more toxic than jet fuel. So that’s a big part of why the news that a huge jet-fuel leak under Kirtland Air Force Base on the southern edge of Albuquerque is so disturbing. The bare facts of the case are cause for concern: The leak has been happening since the 1970s, was finally discovered in 1999 and then was re-discovered last February to be much, much worse than ever thought.

The public is concerned, and rightly so, about the risk of contamination to nearby groundwater in residential neighborhoods located nearby. Jet fuel, if ingested by human, can cause cancer.

But a story this week in the Albuquerque Journal skimmed lightly over the possibility that the leaking jet fuel is dangerous now or could be dangerous in the future.

“This is not an immediate cause for panic,” Col. Robert E. Suminsby, Kirtland’s base commander, told the Journal.

Should the people of Albuquerque simply accept this reassurance from the Air Force, who apparently failed to prevent, discover and/ or manage the leak for at least 30 years? I don’t think so.

And how and why did Kirtland withhold the news of the expanded leak from the public from February of 2007, when it was discovered, until now? Where were the follow-up questions about that?

Then there’s the question of challenging the response from the state and local agencies directly responsible for monitoring groundwater contamination, maintaining the safety of the water supply and keeping the public informed about a possible health risk.

The Air Force inexplicably waited until November of 2007 to report the expanded leak to the state Environment Department, who apparently did not make the news public on its own.

According to the story, a spokesman for the state Environment Department said policies usually call for (The Environment Department? The discoverer of the leak?) the enactment of a plan to clean up contamination before it is reported to the public, unless the public health is at risk.

Isn’t the possibility of causing cancer a public health risk? What exactly is the state’s policy on reporting contamination and does it contain a loophole that should be closed? What about the City-County Water Authority, who also knew about the leak back in February?

Suminsby told the Journal that the Air Force didn’t report the contamination earlier because it “didn’t have enough answers” to determine its scope. That’s a very bad reason to keep information like that from the public.

I think the problem is not that there weren’t enough answers – there weren’t enough questions.

I call upon the media and environmental watchdog groups like the Southwest Information Research Center, which monitors groundwater contamination, to continue asking the questions that will get all of us the answers we need to live safely; questions about the scope of the contamination and the possibility of harm.

I want them to keep asking those questions in addition to these: How did the leak happen? Why did the leak happen? How was it finally discovered? Who finally made it public? Why did the Air Force wait from February of 2007 to November of 2007 to report it to the state? And what happened to cause the information to be kept secret for several months after that?

Summer mysteries may be fun to read, but this real one is just plain scary.

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