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European edition, Saturday, April 28, 2007

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Thousands of gallons of JP8 jet fuel lost when an underground pipe was punctured April 20 at this air base could result in a loss of more than $100,000.

Base officials have said they won’t know the exact amount of fuel lost until the pipe is repaired and running again. But authorities have given estimates of up to 65,000 gallons.

The fuel is valued at $2.43 a gallon, according to Mildenhall spokesman Master Sgt. Charles Tubbs, meaning that more than $157,000 in fuel may have gurgled into the ground.

Depending on where it is in relation to the groundwater, the fuel could be separated and usable, Ian Hill, an environment team manager with the British Environment Agency, said this week. But where the fuel is remains a mystery. For a seventh day, workers searched Friday for the missing fuel near the runway at Mildenhall.

Air Force representatives have refused to release the name of the contractor involved, saying in a message Thursday night that the contractor was procured via the Defence Estates, an arm of the British Ministry of Defence that oversees military bases.

But Walter Scott, a spokesman for Defence Estates, would not release the contractor’s name Friday, referring the query back to the Air Force at Mildenhall.

Late Friday, Tubbs said the contractor’s name is not being released because of the British Environment Agency’s investigation of the spill and the Air Force’s role in supporting that work.

Before the drilling that would eventually hit the fuel pipe, the contractor was provided with maps and a work clearance permit delineating where the fuel piping and other utilities were, Tubbs said Thursday in an e-mail. The contractor was drilling a hole horizontally underground when the rupture occurred, hitting the pipe at a 90-degree angle.

Air Force representatives also have refused to release incident reports from when the spill was discovered about 9:50 p.m. on April 20.

Earlier this week, shallow trenches were dug on either side of the rupture site and across the taxiway where the contractor’s drill initially bored a hole.

Those trenches were dug to see if the fuel had moved laterally, said Lt. Col. Scott Hartford, commander of Mildenhall’s 100th Civil Engineering Squadron. No fuel was found there, and the holes being dug Friday were deeper to groundwater levels in hopes of finding the jet fuel there.

Once workers reach the groundwater that collects in the crags of chalky rock three to four meters underground, the fuel’s location should be better understood, Tubbs said in an e-mail.

The water levels for this groundwater are currently pretty high, meaning the fuel could be floating on top of that groundwater and may be able to just be pumped out, Hill said this week.

The groundwater table is part of an aquifer that supplies water to the area. An aquifer is a layer of permeable rock, gravel, sand or silt that water can be extracted from.

Representatives with Anglian Water, the utility that pumps the aquifer water into area taps, said there has been no evidence of fuel infiltration into the water supply at this point.

There was concern earlier this week that the fuel could reach a nearby “bore hole,” which is basically a hole drilled into the ground through which water is pumped out.

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