New Mexico residents sue Air Force for not cleaning up jet fuel leak that they say contaminated soil, groundwater

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A defender from the 377th Security Forces Group searches for opposing forces during a force-on-force training at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Dec. 6, 2019

A defender from the 377th Security Forces Group searches for opposing forces during a force-on-force training at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Dec. 6, 2019

Citizens groups, state lawmakers and three New Mexico residents who live near jet fuel contamination in Albuquerque have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense, alleging a failure to adequately clean up pollution from Kirtland Air Force Base.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico and asks a federal judge to order the Air Force to "abate and mitigate the endangerment." It also seeks to recover legal fees, which have so far climbed to at least $10,000, according to the complaint.

A jet fuel leak was first discovered at Kirtland Air Force Base in 1999, according to the lawsuit.

Since then, some five to 24 million gallons of fuels have leaked from the facility and have been absorbed into soil and groundwater, according to a notice letter the New Mexico Environmental Law Center sent to the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.

The fuels contain benzene, a carcinogen; ethylene dibromide, another carcinogen; ethylbenzene, a possible carcinogen; and toluene, which has been linked to birth defects and other chemicals.

"The endangerment is the result of the past and present handling, storage or disposal of petroleum-based fuels from the bulk fuels facility at Kirtland Air Force Base," the lawsuit said, alleging violations of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The legal complaint said the leak has contaminated soil and groundwater extending more than a mile from the base to property beneath a residential neighborhood in Albuquerque.

The Air Force has said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit is being brought by a coalition that includes the nonprofit groups Southwest Organizing Project and New Mexico Voices for Children; state Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque; state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque; state Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque; and Albuquerque residents Lucille Cordova, Reynaluz Juarez and Dante Smith.

"We are taking this action because the federal government has failed to develop and implement adequate solutions to this problem," Stewart said in a statement. "The response to this spill has moved far too slowly for far too long."

Kenneth Martinez, with New Mexico Voices for Children, also complained about Air Force inaction in a statement.

"Children have been born, grown up and become adults while the Air Force has been dragging its feet and interminably delaying cleanup," Martinez said. "We owe it to the next generation of children to make sure the Air Force delays no longer."

New Mexico sued the Air Force over separate chemical contamination known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, abbreviated as PFAS, at bases near Clovis and Alamogordo in March 2019.

In January, the New Mexico Environment Department fined the Air Force close to $1.7 million for failing to monitor potentially cancer-causing pollution that has leached from Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis and for allowing a wastewater permit there to lapse.

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