Kelly Air Force Base was established in 1916, the first military air base in Texas. Used as a military depot and for Air Force training, there was increased emphasis on depot-level maintenance post-World War II. At its peak, the base employed approximately 30,000 and was the largest industrial complex in South Texas.
After more than 30 years of investigation and cleanup, the environmental cleanup program is in the final stage of completion at the former Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. All site investigations are complete, all decision documents have been signed, and cleanup is complete at more than 90 percent of all sites.
For the remaining sites, remedies are in place to remove contaminants from the soil and groundwater, ensuring protection of human health and the environment. More than 600 monitoring locations provide data to be sure the public is protected and the groundwater treatment systems are working properly. The Air Force is committed to this effort and environmental regulators provide oversight and certification.
Camp Kelly, the first military air base in Texas, was established in 1917. Originally a training facility, the base's mission quickly shifted to depot-level logistics and aircraft maintenance. By 1995, when the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission ordered Kelly to close, the base covered nearly 4,000 acres, with an additional 600 acres off-base as runway buffer zones.
During its 83 years as a military aviation, training, supply, and maintenance complex, several areas of Kelly were environmentally impacted. The contaminants found at Kelly are typical of manufacturing and maintenance facilities--primarily perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), used as degreasers.
Contaminants entered the soil and groundwater at the facility through leaks, spills, and approved operating and disposal practices of the time. Over time, the contaminants migrated into the groundwater resulting in contaminant plumes in the shallow zone, about 30 feet deep.
The Air Force initiated the Installation Restoration Program in 1982 under the Department of Defense Environmental Restoration Program. Although no sites at Kelly are listed on the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Priorities List, the same process is applied at Kelly to identify, investigate, and clean up the contamination associated with past Air Force activities to protect human health and the environment.
Over the past three decades, the Air Force and state and federal regulatory agencies identified approximately 730 cleanup sites at Kelly. These include fuel storage tanks, wash racks, wastewater treatment systems, oil water separators, and other industrial process areas. Working with the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Air Force has successfully cleaned more than 700 of these sites. All remaining sites have decision documents in place specifying the cleanup plan and are in the process of being cleaned up. To date, the Air Force has spent approximately $300 million on the environmental cleanup at Kelly.
In 1988, along Quintana Road, the Air Force first detected contamination in the shallow groundwater. Since then, the Air Force has used a variety of innovative cleanup techniques to remove and treat the soil and shallow groundwater.
Systems to contain the plume were installed to prevent additional migration of contaminants. To remove contaminants, Air Force environmental engineers use several technologies. These include using micro-organisms to break down chemicals and pumping contaminated water to a treatment plant where it is cleaned and returned into Leon and Six Mile creeks - the natural discharge areas for the shallow groundwater zone. Engineers also use a permeable reactive barrier to treat groundwater. These barriers are made of iron filings which react with chemicals in the groundwater, causing them to break down into less harmful by-products.
Through these efforts the Air Force expects the groundwater to be restored to drinking water quality within 5 - 7 years at all but two sites. Cleanup of the last two sites is also progressing well and the Air Force remains committed to restoring the groundwater at these sites to drinking water quality as quickly as possible. TCEQ and EPA provide regulatory oversight of the Air Force throughout this process to ensure health and safety standards are met.
The Air Force evaluates data from 600 groundwater sampling locations to verify that the treatments are effective. In addition, engineers look for opportunities to improve the system to increase its effectiveness and decrease the time to complete cleanup.
Drinking water for the Kelly community, as well as the city of San Antonio, comes from the Edwards Aquifer not the shallow groundwater zone. The shallow groundwater zone lies approximately 30 feet underground; the Edwards Aquifer is approximately 1,500 feet below the shallow groundwater zone. The two aquifers are separated by approximately one-quarter mile of impermeable clay; ensuring drinking water is safe from Kelly contamination.
Along with ongoing cleanup activities, the Air Force is reviewing its past cleanup decisions under the Accelerated Site Completion Program. The goal is to achieve unrestricted use of the sites after cleanup is complete. This helps local communities by facilitating redevelopment, including the potential for residential reuse. Under this program, the Air Force conducted a thorough review of all of their environmental sites and identified nearly 400 sites at the former Kelly AFB that previously had been closed with land use controls. Through this program the Air Force believes many of these sites will achieve unrestricted closure with only limited additional cleanup.
Monitoring & Review
An important component of all the cleanup programs at Kelly is ongoing monitoring and a comprehensive 5-year review. Monitoring provides verification on a regular basis that the program is working as intended. The 5-year review is a comprehensive audit of all cleanup sites at the former base. It not only reviews the effectiveness of all cleanup actions, but it also reviews the current knowledge about the contaminants and cleanup treatments to ensure the remedy remains protective of human health and the environment. Lastly, the review provides recommendations for ongoing operations of the remedy.
In response to concerns about the health of people living near or working on Kelly, the Air Force entered into a cooperative agreement with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District in 2002. The agreement provided $5 million over 10 years for the Public Center for Environmental Health to develop and conduct health-related research studies, including testing homegrown produce, and providing free health exams to community members. These studies ended in 2011 and were unable to link Kelly AFB activities with these individual's health problems.
Since 1994, the Restoration Advisory Board has been a forum for public involvement in the cleanup decisions. Over the years, public involvement opportunities have also included tours, small group meetings and community outreach events. Now that all decisions are made, the Air Force will continue to provide updates through this website, by mail and in person via the Public Affairs office.
The Air Force, with oversight by EPA and TCEQ, will continue to complete the remaining groundwater cleanup and will to keep the public informed of news and milestones related to the cleanup.