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MILDENHALL, England — Two British contractors pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing Monday to causing a major fuel spill last April at RAF Mildenhall.

Roughly 44,000 gallons of jet fuel seeped into the ground on April 20. Only about 7,200 gallons have been recovered as part of a clean-up process that could take decades to complete, according to Anne-Lise McDonald, prosecuting on behalf of the British Environment Agency.

The hearing was held at the Mildenhall Magistrates’ Court. The agency filed charges against contractor Roy Clarke and the company T. Clarke (Midlands) Ltd. for polluting controlled water after an underground jet fuel line was ruptured while the company was drilling a 60-meter hole near a taxiway.

Roy Clarke works for the drilling company Underground Solutions based in Diss, Norfolk.

“Risks were known but proper care was not taken,” McDonald told the court. “This is a very serious impact on the environment.”

Spilled fuel has already been discovered in the water table of a chalk aquifer found beneath RAF Mildenhall. The aquifer holds much of the local area’s drinking water.

Anglian Water — one of the biggest water service providers in the United Kingdom — has taken measures to ensure the tainted water does not reach anyone’s taps, according to EA spokeswoman Catherine Burbage.

“Underground water has been contaminated but no one is at risk of receiving it,” Burbage wrote in an e-mail.

Because of the aquifer, the area is known as a “groundwater source protection zone,” where pollution penalties are stiffer under the auspices of the Water Resources Act and the protection zone status.

The defendants face a maximum penalty of 20,000 pounds ($39,200) and/or three months’ imprisonment, McDonald told the court. Penalties could be more severe if the case goes to the higher Crown Court.

Besides underground water, the EA is responsible for maintaining or improving the quality of fresh, marine and surface water in England and Wales, according to its Web site.

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