50,000 gallons of fuel missing after Mildenhall leak
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Crews were working at this air base Wednesday to determine the location of more than 50,000 gallons of jet fuel that spilled from a ruptured fuel line last week.
The spill happened Friday night when a contractor working on the runway ran a drill through a buried 10-inch fuel line, said Lt. Col. Scott Hartford, the 100th Civil Engineering Squadron commander.
“Our fuel operators noticed a drop in the storage tank, and we immediately ran the lines and discovered (the jet fuel) bubbling up on the surface,” he said of the rupture, which happened at 9:50 p.m. Friday. A 150-square-foot patch of dead grass indicates where the fuel came up.
No evidence of water contamination has been found so far, said Collette Nichols, a spokeswoman for Anglian Water Services, a utility that supplies the area.
But there is concern that the fuel could eventually seep into the subterranean aquifer that supplies the area with tap water, she said.
Hartford said that there is “considerable travel time” before the fuel would get to any water supply wells.
Since the spill, base officials and workers from the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) have been trying to figure out just where the tens of thousands of gallons of fuel have gone, and the extent of the contamination, Hartford said.
The fuel could be floating in ground water three to four meters beneath the surface, or it may be saturated in dirt or sand, he said.
The groundwater table is currently high, and that may make retrieval of the fuel easier, said Ian Hill, an environment team leader with the British Environment Agency.
While it could eventually sink down to the aquifer, that groundwater right beneath the ground’s surface is not the source of drinking water.
Trenches were dug on either side of the punctured pipe Wednesday, and no fuel was found there, suggesting that the fuel either sank deeper into the ground or went through the hole the contractor’s drill had augured from the other side of the taxiway, said Barry Stevens, an environmental adviser with the MOD at Mildenhall who was on site Wednesday.
In the coming days, workers will dig wells to figure out exactly where the fuel sits, Hartford said, and how best to clean it up.
If the oil is standing on groundwater, it may be pumped out, he said. If it has saturated soil or sand, enzymes and oxygen might have to be infused in the ground to “digest” the fuel.
Base officials did not release information about the rupture until Wednesday morning.
Hartford said the public was not immediately notified because base personnel did not know where the rupture had occurred.
“We wanted to get a message out and have some experts looking at it over the weekend,” Hartford said. “We wanted to make sure we were factual.”
The Environment Agency has opened an investigation into the spill, Hill said.
While he would not name the contractor involved, Hartford said the MOD and the contractor were in discussions with Air Force officials regarding the incident.
Since the full extent of the work required is not yet known, Hartford said he could not say how much the cleanup would cost. Depending on the current state of the fuel, it could take weeks or months.
While Hartford would not say how much fuel the base stores, he said the relative loss from the spill was “minimal” compared to overall fuel levels on base.
A KC-135A aircraft, one of the main planes at Mildenhall, can hold more than 30,000 gallons of jet fuel, according to an Air Force Web site.
Some aircraft are being parked at alternate locations away from the spill site, and trucks instead of the standard tanks are fueling some planes.
Aside from a comment in a Mildenhall press release about working together, officials with the Forest Heath District Council, the local governing body outside the base, would not comment on the spill, Air Force officials said.
Hartford said the base would be requesting funding through U.S. Air Forces in Europe and other Defense Department agencies to assist in the cleanup.
Reporter Ben Murray contributed to this story.