The groundwater below Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo tested positive for hazardous chemicals—and the contamination levels are more than 18,000 times higher than what the federal government says is safe.
A November 2018 site inspection report provided to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), and obtained by NM Political Report this week, details the contamination. Currently, the state is trying to understand the extent of the problem and what might be done.
According to the report, in 2016, the U.S. Air Force identified 31 potential release sites at Holloman. Two years later, in 2018, contractors tested five areas to determine if PFAS were present in soil, sediment, ground or surface water. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of human-made chemicals, and include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).
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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), health impacts from exposure to PFAS can include thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, cancers, high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response and reproductive and developmental complications.
The human health advisory—for a lifetime drinking water exposure to PFAS—is 70 parts per trillion, or 70 nanograms per liter.
Samples at Holloman were as high as 1.294 million parts per trillion.
The Air Force report says no drinking water supply wells are located at the base because the groundwater there “is classified as unfit for human consumption due to the generally poor ambient groundwater quality.” But “potential human receptors” from PFAS in groundwater include on-base personnel, residents, grounds and maintenance workers, utility workers and construction workers.
“We’re extremely concerned about the contamination, but we’re also extremely concerned about the Air Force’s lack of remedial response,” New Mexico Environment Department Secretary-designate James Kenney said in an interview Friday. “Our goal is to make sure that the environment is protected, that public health is protected and that New Mexicans are made whole from the lack of response that the Air Force has shown.”
He said NMED is studying whether about 10 wells near Holloman are currently used for irrigation and industrial purposes or as potable water supplies.
“We’re also looking to see what impacts there might be, beyond the impact to the environment and to public health,” said the secretary-designate, who added his department is cooperating with the New Mexico Department of Health and New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “We are working as quickly as we can using the science we have, and using our legal authorities to try to be protective of New Mexicans and hold the Air Force accountable.”
Delegation sought tests
NM Political Report requested the U.S. Air Force reports submitted to NMED after U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and then-U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in October 2018.
In that letter to Wilson, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, the two asked for test data from Holloman and Kirtland and also asked the Air Force to address residents’ concerns about the groundwater contamination from Cannon Air Force Base.
Last fall, groundwater monitoring wells at Cannon detected concentrations of PFAS exceeding 26,000 nanograms per liter, or roughly 345 times the federal lifetime drinking water exposure limit. In off-base wells, including those that supply drinking water to dairies, they detected levels ranging from 25 to 1,600 nanograms per liter. The contamination has been traced to pits where Air Force firefighters trained to extinguish aircraft fires.
In response to that report, NMED issued a notice that the Air Force had violated the state’s Water Quality Act at Cannon. The notice of violation required the Air Force to come up with a short-term plan to protect dairies from contamination and evaluate the possibility of installing systems to treat contaminated water supplies.
But on Jan. 17, the Air Force sued New Mexico, challenging a December 2018 hazardous waste permit the state issued to Cannon.
The Air Force had agreed to wrap PFAS cleanup into that December permit from the state, Kenney explained. “Then, as we moved towards discussions about actual remediation work that would ensue, the Air Force filed in federal court an action to remove those provisions from the [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] corrective action permit,” he said, adding that would effectively remove the state’s authority to compel the Air Force to clean up PFAS under the state permit.
The litigation came as a shock.
“We were having discussions with the Air Force over various remedial options with respect to that permit, we felt like we were making progress, and I think it took us by surprise that the Air Force was exiting good faith conversations through the initiation of litigation,” Kenney said.
Laura McAndrews, with the Air Force Press Desk, wrote in an email that Air Force does not comment on pending litigation. She added that PFAS compounds aren’t currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but that the Air Force is “taking proactive measures to reduce the risk of Air Force mission-related PFOS/PFOA releases to installation and supporting communities’ drinking water sources.”
McAndrews wrote that the military’s first priority is to ensure no one is drinking water contaminated above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. That advisory, she wrote, “provides a margin of protection from adverse health effects resulting from a lifetime exposure at or exceeding the levels established by the EPA, and the LHA already accounts for human exposure pathways such as food intake in addition to drinking water exposure.”
She emphasized that the EPA lifetime health advisory “addresses drinking water impacts, and the Air Force program is focused on identifying and mitigating drinking water impacted at levels above the EPA health advisory.”
In January, Luján joined nearly two dozen representatives in a bipartisan PFAS Task Force, “with the goal of bringing PFAS clean-up to the forefront of the congressional agenda.”
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that activities at 126 military bases had contaminated groundwater with PFAS. In total, 401 active and former installations had at least one known or suspected release of PFAS.
The problems are linked to firefighting foams used beginning in the 1970s to extinguish petroleum-based fires. (PFAS were also used in food packaging, nonstick products like Teflon and cleaning supplies.) The manufacture of many PFAS chemicals has since been phased out in the U.S., but the health impacts from exposure to the chemicals remain. The compounds move through the groundwater, and they’re persistent, which means they stay in the system for a long time. They also bioaccumulate, or move up the food chain, accumulating more and more within each species.
“I’m concerned about the lack of immediate response to Holloman and to Cannon,” Luján told NM Political Report Friday, “and we need to explore every tool that we have to require the Air Force to go in and clean this up immediately and to make this right.”
Luján said he couldn’t speak to how the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez may have handled the issue or communicated with the Air Force. But on Thursday, Luján met personally with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“Briefed by Secretary Kenney, we have all agreed to work together, as opposed to previously, the administration may have worked on their own,” he said. “It is critically important we all work together, to leverage federal resources, leverage state resources, and that we get the attention of and commitment of the Air Force Base and Secretary Heather Wilson.” Noting that Wilson represented New Mexico in Congress, Luján added that “we should be in the best position, with a leader who understands our state better than anyone else.”
But Luján said he’s frustrated with the Air Force—frustrated by a lack of response to concerns from the community, and frustrated that the Air Force sued New Mexico just before the Cannon cleanup agreement was going into effect.
EPA backing away from standards
There is also reason for concern when it comes to the EPA, which in 2016 had established guidelines for exposure to PFAS. The human health advisory set the lifetime drinking water exposure limit at 70 parts per trillion, or 70 nanograms per liter.
In early December, Luján along with Reps. Paul Tonko, D-New York, Peter Welch, D-Vermont, and Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, wrote to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. They commended EPA on efforts to develop a national PFAS management plan, and requested additional information about newly introduced perfluorinated chemicals, studies and data about the chemicals and monitoring information.
But earlier this week, national media outlet Politico reported that the EPA no longer plans to create a formal drinking water standard for PFAS.
“I don’t even have words for that,” said Luján.
Friday, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich were among 20 senators who wrote to Wheeler, concerned that the EPA won’t establish drinking water standards for PFAS.
“The U.S. Air Force must quickly and transparently determine the full extent of PFAS contamination around Holloman Air Force Base and other Air Force sites, in close coordination with the state of New Mexico and affected communities,” Udall told NM Political Report.
“Existing pollution from these toxic firefighting chemicals cannot be allowed to spread to more of New Mexico’s limited water supplies,” he said. “While we hope that there have been no impacts to drinking or agricultural water sources in the area around Holloman, my priority is ensuring that the Air Force is acting quickly to protect the health of our current and past service members, their families, community members, and employees at Holloman and other bases, and that any local residents or businesses affected by contamination are fairly compensated and made whole.”
Udall also said it’s “beyond clear” that EPA needs to designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances at the federal level, “so that the Air Force is both required to clean up contamination and has the tools and resources it needs to meet that obligation.”