Friday evening in Clovis, the U.S. Air Force is scheduled to host a meeting about groundwater contamination below and near Cannon Air Force Base in eastern New Mexico. Details about the meeting were publicly released Tuesday, Nov. 6, on Election Day.
This summer, the Air Force announced it was sampling groundwater wells for traces of harmful chemicals found within firefighting foam used at the base from the 1970s until last year.
The testing was part of a nationwide effort by the military: Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that activities at 126 military bases had contaminated groundwater with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of human-made chemicals, often referred to as PFAS’s, that includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).
Now, PFAS’s have been found in the groundwater below Cannon Air Force Base—and in wells that were tested off-base.
In a statement, Lt. Col. Russell Gheesling, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron commander said officials notified landowners with registered wells in the area if their wells tested above federal safety levels.
“In accordance with current laws, [the Air Force Civil Engineer Center] can only provide drinking water for human consumption,” he added. “After the scope of the contamination has been established and validated by AFCEC, the Air Force will work with the state to develop remedial action plans for a long-term solution.”
According to J.P. Rebello, director of media operations for Cannon, the Air Force and AFCEC also invited state and federal agencies to address concerns and answer questions at Friday’s meeting. He added that Cannon Air Force Base is “committed to maintaining a transparent and open dialogue about this situation with our community partners, stakeholders and fellow citizens of Clovis and Portales.”
Old chemicals, new tests
Manufactured beginning in the mid-twentieth century, PFAS’s were used in food packaging, nonstick products like Teflon, cleaning supplies, and in foams used to extinguish petroleum-based fires. The manufacture and use of many PFAS chemicals have since been phased out, but the contamination remains.
And so, too, do health impacts from exposure to the chemicals.
These impacts can include thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, cancers, high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response and reproductive and developmental complications. PFAS’s move through the groundwater, and they’re persistent, which means they stick around for a long time. They also bioaccumulate, or move up the food chain, accumulating more and more within each species.
In response to new understandings about the chemicals and their effects, in 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established new guidelines for exposure. The human health advisory set the lifetime drinking water exposure limit at 70 parts per trillion, or 70 nanograms per liter.
At Cannon Air Force Base, groundwater monitoring wells detected concentrations exceeding 26,000 nanograms per liter. And in off-base wells, including those that supply drinking water to dairies, they detected levels ranging from 25 to 1,600 nanograms per liter.
Chain of command
In March, the Air Force identified where the chemicals might have been used at Cannon—pits where Air Force firefighters train to extinguish aircraft fires.
In August, it expanded its investigation into groundwater contamination beneath the base and within a four-mile radius outside its boundaries, based on earlier studies of how groundwater in the area moves.
In response to the investigation’s results, in late September the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) requested that the Air Force expand testing, re-sample wells on the base and provide alternative drinking water to people whose wells are contaminated.
Then, on October 16, NMED, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) announced to the larger public that the Air Force had informed them of contaminated wells on and off the base.
In their announcement, the three state agencies said that until further testing confirms otherwise, all residents and businesses with private wells within a four-mile radius of the entire Cannon Air Force Base property should use bottled water.
In addition, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture requested that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration quickly establish a regulatory threshold for PFAS’s in dairy products.
There are more than 150 dairies in New Mexico, most of which are in southeastern New Mexico. In 2017, there were 25 dairy farms in Curry County, which included 63,000 milk cows and produced 139,806,034 pounds of milk or cheese.
In response to questions from NM Political Report, NMED officials explained that the agency’s Groundwater Quality Bureau is the regulatory agency in charge of protecting the state’s groundwater. That means the Air Force must report all its test results to the state. Then, NMED will work with NMDOH and NMDA to make sure the Air Force completes an investigation, and cleanup.
Katy Diffendorfer, NMED’s communications director, added that the next step involves ensuring the Air Force defines the magnitude and extent of the plume.
This is just one of hundreds of Defense Department PFAS-contaminated sites, she explained, and right now, the Cannon site affects a limited area and a few residents.
NMED has also frequently noted in its materials to the public that as a class, PFAS’s are considered “emerging contaminants”—which means not much is known about them. Giving the lack of EPA criteria to protect the environment and public health, and given the extent of the contamination from military bases, the Air Force is focusing on just two of the compounds, PFOA and PFOS.
NM reps appeal to Wilson
Three days after the state agencies made their public announcement, Democratic U.S. Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján—whose congressional district includes Cannon Air Force Base and the city of Clovis—sent a letter to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, saying they were disappointed in the lack of communication with the public.
According to that letter, the Air Force’s notification letters to well owners did not include specific health risk information, but instead directed them to an EPA website—without “even providing a direct link to an appropriate page.” They urged the Air Force to make sure local residents “clearly understand potential health risks.”
Lujan Grisham and Luján also called on Wilson, who represented New Mexico’s first congressional district from 1998 to 2009, to rectify the situation, collaborate with the state agencies and “respond without delay” to the state’s corrective actions. And they asked Wilson for information about any plans to pump and treat the water and for the August and September well test results.
Luján and Lujan Grisham, who is now New Mexico’s Governor-Elect, also requested that the Air Force expedite similar testing at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo and send NMED the PFOA and PFOS test results from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.
As of Thursday, Nov. 8, Wilson had not responded to the congressional letter.
“While it’s important that the Air Force is finally providing a forum for Curry County residents to be heard, they cannot stop there,” Luján told NM Political Report. “Residents deserve an action plan that puts the health and safety of the community first.”
He said he’ll continue working with his congressional colleagues to get answers from the Defense Department and Cannon Air Force Base officials, “to ensure that we have a complete assessment of the impact of the contaminated water sources.”
Luján added that his office will continue offering assistance to local governments. But there are bigger questions to consider, too. “Moving forward, Congress needs to take a hard look at how the EPA can prevent this from happening in the future,” he said.
Groundwater is an important resource in New Mexico, particularly in eastern New Mexico where Roosevelt and Curry counties rely entirely on groundwater for drinking water, irrigation and municipal and industrial supplies.
And those supplies are dwindling.
In a 2017 report, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources analyzed thousands of water-level measurements from more than 1,000 wells over 50 years to create “aquifer lifetime projections” for the High Plains Aquifer in east-central New Mexico.
The agency found that if farms, cities, rural residents, the air base and businesses continue pumping water at the same rate they have been over the past 20 years, the groundwater in the area will be depleted within the next five to 20 years.
The public meeting will be held Friday, Nov. 9, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the North Annex of the Clovis-Carver Public Library, 701 North Main Street, Clovis, New Mexico. The U.S. Air Force Civil Engineering Center has a FAQ’s page about PFOS and PFOA and the military’s response.
According to an October press release from the state:
Residents are encouraged to call the NMDOH Epidemiology and Response Division’s at (505) 827-0006 for consultation about the results of their well water test, or for information about how to get their well water tested.
Se recomienda a los residentes que llamen a la línea de llamadas de la División de Epidemiología y Respuesta de NMDOH al (505) 827-0006 para consultar sobre los resultados del análisis de agua de su pozo o para obtener información sobre cómo realizar un análisis de agua de su pozo.