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Workers are boring holes this week for approximately 19 oil extraction pumps that are being installed around the site where an underground jet fuel line was ruptured on April 20 at RAF Mildenhall, England. The pumps will suck out the fuel that is floating on groundwater below, base officials said Tuesday.

Workers are boring holes this week for approximately 19 oil extraction pumps that are being installed around the site where an underground jet fuel line was ruptured on April 20 at RAF Mildenhall, England. The pumps will suck out the fuel that is floating on groundwater below, base officials said Tuesday. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

European edition, Wednesday, May 2, 2007

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Fuel that seeped into the ground here on April 20 when an underground pipe was punctured has been found in ground water that flows toward the region’s water supply.

Ground water and the JP8 fuel now floating in it moves naturally in a northwesterly direction from the spill site, toward a well operated by Anglian Water Services, a local water utility, base officials said Tuesday.

But Lt. Col. Scott Hartford, commander of Mildenhall’s 100th Civil Engineering Squadron, said “it would take years” for the fuel to make it to that well.

Up to 65,000 gallons might have seeped into the ground when a contractor ruptured the pipe with a drill. The exact amount lost won’t be known until the fuel line is running again.

The Anglian water well sits about 1.5 miles from the spill site, according to Catherine Burbage, a spokeswoman for the British Environment Agency.

Another well, which draws water for the base’s use, sits northeast of the spill site and wouldn’t be affected, said Hartford.

“The oil appears to be traveling very slowly on the ground water,” Burbage said in an e-mail. “We are hopeful that the combination of remediation being undertaken on site and natural processes will mean that there is no risk to the [well].”

Depending on the permeability of the ground, it could take months or years for the fuel to reach the commercial well, said Dan Baker, an Anglian Water spokesman. To further monitor the fuel’s potential spread, Anglian Water is drilling holes between the fuel spill and the utility’s well, he said.

The base’s main line of defense is a set of extraction wells being dug around the spill site, Hartford said, adding that crews are working “feverishly” to get the fuel cleaned up.

“Yes, we had a mishap,” he said. “But we have been very diligent in attacking it.”

A handful of pumps were installed in the past few days, he said, and those units are extracting the fuel. Nineteen pumps in all will be installed this week, but it could take months to get all the fuel out of the ground.

Other cleanup plans involve digging up about 30 inches of topsoil and aerating it to get the fuel out, he said, but the first order of business is pumping out the fuel.

The contractor who punctured the pipe was provided with maps indicating underground obstacles, Hartford said. Both British and American representatives have refused to release the name of that contractor.

“He made a mistake,” Hartford said, adding the contractor had done work at the base before. “He did not do the proper coordination we require before digging.”

While base representatives said last week that crews were still looking for the lost fuel, Hartford said Tuesday that the fuel was discovered on April 26, about six meters down and floating in the ground water. Workers continue to plot out the entire footprint of the spill this week.

“We weren’t turning up a whole lot,” Hartford said of the initial discovery. “We were kind of perplexed.”

Efforts to get to the underground fuel began in earnest on April 23, a few days after the rupture, Hartford said.

Even after the fuel is pumped out and the topsoil aerated and cleaned, there is still the possibility that some of the fuel will have diffused into and below the ground water, Hartford said, meaning that long-term monitoring will be required.

“This will go on for years,” he said.

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