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State, fed agencies seem unfazed by troubling Kelly reports

When you sift through the hundreds of pages of numbers and the long chemical names, the situation at Kelly Air Force Base boils down to this: The water, dirt, and fish in Leon Creek are contaminated with toxic chemicals. The Air Force’s incomplete data is hampering an independent consultant’s ability to evaluate how military contractors are cleaning up the former base and the residential neighborhood that abuts it. And, at this rate, a complete cleanup is decades away.

KellyUSA, site of the former Kelly Air Force Base, is the likely source for contaminants that have leaked into adjacent Leon Creek. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

In January, biochemist Wilma Subra and civil engineer Patrick Lynch delivered sobering presentations about the ongoing cleanup of contamination at Kelly. `See related story, “Report bears little good news for Kelly cleanup,” January 4-10, 2006.` The presentations were part of a meeting of the Kelly Air Force Restoration Advisory Board, which hired consultants Subra and Lynch to review the military’s data. Members of the RAB, as it’s known, include residents from the affected community, scientists, and an Air Force representative. Staff from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency also attend the meetings.

Among the many issues the RAB faces are the chemicals found in Leon Creek, which are the same as were used at Kelly when it was a military base. While TCEQ’s Mark Weeger said the fish could have been contaminated elsewhere and migrated to the creek, Subra noted that, “Kelly is the biggest elephant around.”

Subra unveiled 2004 data showing that surface water in Leon Creek exceeded Environmental Protection Agency thresholds for four chemicals, including mercury. Creek sediment had excessive levels of 22 chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium, and DDT — an insecticide banned in 1972. Fish tissue sampled in 2004 also contained higher than permissable levels of four chemicals, including hexachlorobutadiene, which can cause kidney tumors. Eighteen of 30 fish-tissue samples exceeded screening levels for various toxic chemicals.

The news didn’t improve with Lynch, who reviewed the Air Force’s 2004 groundwater assessment, which documented a persistent plume of arsenic in the groundwater southeast of the base. Citing a lack of monitoring wells and lab reports and inaccurate figures, Lynch said, “There is no way to replicate the statistics. There is no way to independently evaluate the analysis.”

Despite the dim news, Weeger of the TCEQ and Gary Miller of the EPA’s Region 6 office stood in the back of the room and chatted while Lynch discussed his recommendation for Kelly: “If you want the groundwater cleaned up, you have to remove the contamination from the ground.”

Only after RAB member Robert Silvas commented on their private conversation did they return to the table. Weeger and Miller downplayed Lynch’s and Subra’s findings, saying they are aware of contamination in the area.

“The cleanup is well underway,” said Miller, referring to the groundwater pumps, barriers, and other measures the Air Force is undertaking. “It will take a number of years for the remedies in place.”

“How do you account for the problems in the report?” asked RAB member Armando Quintanilla.

“We would have found these inconsistencies,” said Weeger, adding that, “the cleanup is going along very well.

“Discrepancies in a few wells doesn’t change the long-term remediation. You can get wrapped up in the minutiae, but that doesn’t change that groundwater contamination is still high.”

By Lisa Sorg

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