ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — State and federal officials are becoming increasingly confident they'll be able to clean up a massive plume of jet fuel at the edge of Albuquerque before it reaches drinking water wells.
First detected in 1999, the leak at a fueling station at Kirtland Air Force Base was believed to have been seeping into the ground for decades. Estimates of the amount of fuel spilled have ranged from 6 million to 24 million gallons.
A pump-and-treat system began operating earlier this month, and officials have plans to bring two more extraction wells online before the end of the year. More monitoring wells also are planned.
"Things are moving forward. The Air Force is working in good faith and expeditiously, but just because they got that first well up and running doesn't mean we're going to slow down," said Dennis McQuillan, a geologist with the New Mexico Environment Department. "We're just going to keep moving full throttle to intercept and collapse this plume."
McQuillan and other officials planned to update the public during a meeting Thursday in Albuquerque.
With some of the city's drinking water wells at risk, the state set a series of deadlines last year for the U.S. Air Force to address the plume.
Tons of soil that had surrounded the old pipeline at the fueling station were removed by tractors and semi-trucks last summer. The Air Force also used a vacuum system to suck vapors from the soil at deeper levels. That technology has recovered more than 600,000 gallons of fuel.
Cleaning up the contaminated water hundreds of feet below the surface has been one of the more complicated pieces of the plan.
Officials prepared for the public dozens of detailed slides, maps and cross sections of what the work entails.
With the pump-and-treat system, contaminated water is fed through a filtration system on base property. The system is capable of treating about 100 gallons per minute, and that will increase as more extraction wells are drilled over the next year.
So far, the first extraction well has removed more than 1 million gallons. That was treated and used to water Kirtland's golf course.
"With multiple technologies attacking different parts of the plume, we'll get it cleaned up," McQuillan said.
Officials say 16 new groundwater monitoring wells have been drilled and they show the plume is not moving toward two of the closest wells. Monthly testing of drinking water also has not detected any contamination.
For many of the experts working on the project, they've never had to deal with contamination at such depths. The problem has been further complicated by a shift in the water table, which trapped some of the oils at lower levels. After dropping for years, the city's water table rebounded thanks to conservation efforts and more reliance on water from the Rio Grande.
As more extraction wells come online, experts say they'll monitor the effect on the plume and the aquifer to determine where future wells need to be drilled.