The U.S. Air Force scrapped an innovative plan to clean up toxic chemicals at Williams Gateway Airport because Bush administration officials decided the contamination isn’t likely enough to give residents cancer, an Air Force representative said.
The Air Force was planning to use new technology to extract pollutants from a 20-acre jet fuel spill at the Mesa airport in late 2004 when top military advisers handed down a revised policy, said Anthony Wong, environmental coordinator for base realignment and closures at the Air Force Real Property Agency.
The policy change places restrictions on the amount of money that can be spent decontaminating former military installations if the risk of causing cancer in humans is less than 1 in 10,000.
Before the change, the risk threshold was much lower — up to 1 in 1 million, said Wong, who oversees cleanup activities at the former Air Force base.
"I don’t know the reason behind (the change) — we’re just following orders basically," he said.
Wong said he did not know the exact risk of contracting cancer from exposure to the toxic plume, caused by years of leaking from a faulty fuel tank, but it falls somewhere between the new and old standards.
The decision not to use thermal enhanced vapor extraction, a recently developed method of cleaning up chemical spills, will extend the presence of benzene and other contaminants in the soil and groundwater underneath by 50 to 100 years, he said.
Environmental Protection Agency project manager Michael Wolfram said up to 12 million gallons of fuel may have leaked from the tank, and that the Air Force’s promise to use thermal vapor had prevented the EPA from taking legal action.
The EPA is still hoping to avoid a lengthy and expensive dispute resolution process, Wolfram said, but the agency is running out of options.
"Even agreements that we signed have been reopened because the Air Force has changed its priorities," he said.
An EPA report released Wednesday lists Williams Gateway as one of 10 former military installations in the country where groundwater contamination is out of control.
The report has more to do with a second contaminated area, Wolfram said, where a plume of toxic solvents underneath a former landfill on the property has extended beyond the airport’s boundaries, and nobody knows how far it goes.
The plume contains the chemical solvents trichloroethane and perchloroethylene, which were used by the military to degrease metal parts.
Wolfram said it is unlikely that contaminants have reached drinking water supplies, but additional testing wells will have to be dug off site — on private property or in public rights of way — to determine how serious the problem is.
Meanwhile, EPA and Air Force officials plan to meet at an environmental summit next week in San Francisco to work on a compromise.
"No one really wants to go into dispute resolution, but we have done it in the past," Wong said.
Thirty-four military bases shut down since 1988 are on the EPA’s Superfund list of worst toxic waste sites — most of them for at least 15 years — and not one is completely cleaned up to date.
The Pentagon has spent $8.3 billion so far on pollution cleanups and other compliance with environmental laws at former military installations, congressional investigators say. At Williams Gateway, about $40 million has been spent, and $10 million more is anticipated.
EPA officials say it will be at least a decade before many base cleanups are completed — at a cost the government estimates will reach an additional $3.6 billion.
Wong said cleanup efforts at Williams Gateway have not ceased, and that the Air Force plans to turn over the former fuel storage area — known as ST-12 — to Mesa for redevelopment within the next year.
However, because the site will still be contaminated, there will be restrictions placed on how the land can be used, and deep excavation will be prohibited.