LAS CRUCES -- More than two years after a U.S. Air Force drone aircraft crashed at White Sands National Monument, Department of Defense officials have committed to a complete clean up of the site.
Peter J. Potochney, acting assistant secretary for the Department of Defense, pledged to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., that remediation of the crash site will soon begin. He also apologized for a "bureaucratic tangle" that has delayed the crash site from being cleaned up sooner.
"I'm not happy at all with the fact that it has taken us this long," said Potochney, at an April 7 Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies. "I can assure you we're watching it very careful now."
Potochney could not commit to a timeline because contracts have not been finalized. But he expected the clean up to be done "expeditiously."
Marie Sauter, White Sands National Monument superintendent, said she had not yet been provided details about the clean up, and could not comment further.
A QF-4 drone aircraft from Holloman Air Force Base crashed Feb. 7, 2014 at White Sands National Monument. Holloman officials said the unmanned aircraft was on a routine training mission at the time of the crash. The QF-4 is a Vietnam-era aircraft that has been modified to fly remotely.
Potochney told Udall the crash of the Air Force plane happened during a training mission for the U.S. Navy. At the time of the crash, the aircraft was assigned to Detachment 1, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, a tenant unit at Holloman assigned to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group.
The monument was closed in advance of the mission, and no one was hurt. The cause of the crash has not been publicly disclosed.
Udall said he, other members of New Mexico's congressional delegation, and the public have been frustrated with the length of time it has taken to clean up White Sands National Monument. The crash happened on Dunes Drive, an area of the monument that has been popular to visitors.
Larger debris from the crash was cleared away. But the crash site has been closed to the public amid concerns of jet fuel that spilled into the sand.
"A four-mile stretch of the monument remains closed today, due to serious concerns about contamination in the soil, including access to two popular family-friendly trails," Udall said. "There have been some frustrating bureaucratic issues preventing cleanup related to inter-agency funding.
"... I think it's important we move forward so we make sure that we have a good long-term relationship between the Air Force and the White Sands National Monument, which work very closely together to achieve -- as you know -- a lot of these national security objectives."
The monument has apparently been losing revenue since the crash site has been closed to visitors the past 26 months. In the first week immediately following the crash, the monument lost as much as $2,000 a day, as more than 900 would-be visitors were turned away each day.
"Our family has only been at the monument twice in the past couple of years," said Las Crucen Jenny Ponder. "We used to go there for picnics or some of the summer programs they have out there. But with the part of the monument that has been off limits, it kind of takes away some of the excitement of going there."
But Greg Borrego, of Anthony, said his family has modified their trips to the monument, and those have worked out well.
"We still go out there two, maybe three times a year, if we can," Borrego said. "There's still quite a few places you can take your family out there. It's a little more planning, because we don't want to end up somewhere it can get really crowded, But, we've managed; it's still a great place for a family outing, especially for the kids."