April 8, 2019

Tests: PFAS limits below federal limits in drinking water near Cannon

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Cannon AFB courtesy photo: VIRIN: 101010-F-YG475-003.JPG

At Cannon Air Force Base, the 27th Special Operations Mission Support Group provides combat support and base sustainment services to ensure mission readiness.

According to recent tests, Cannon Air Force Base’s public water system is safe.

In response to the discovery of groundwater contamination last year, the state of New Mexico conducted follow-up testing this spring.

Samples from two of the four wells currently supplying drinking water tested by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) did contain polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. That includes samples from the Turquoise Estates drinking water system. But the levels are below the federal health advisory.

“We wanted to ensure that the source water that was being provided to the servicemen and women at Cannon was still safe,” said NMED Secretary James Kenney. “And that we had updated data based on [NMED] testing the water, and not just Cannon testing the water.”

The issue isn’t necessarily straightforward, however. That’s in part because there are a number of related chemicals, and the risks associated with exposure to them aren’t yet fully understood.

While the military has tested groundwater at bases nationwide for two types of PFAS chemicals—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—the state tested for traces of other related chemicals within that same family. Those include perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).

“We wound up using a different methodology that has the capability of looking at a larger suite of chemicals when we went out in March,” Kenney said.

“The chemicals are all below the federal level, and we as the state, and in consultation with federal partners, don’t believe there is any concern at these levels we’re seeing,” he said. “But the fact that we have detects might make some people concerned.” Ideally, according to NMED, there should be no traces of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

The federal human health advisory for a lifetime drinking water exposure to PFOA and PFOS is 70 parts per trillion, or 70 nanograms per liter.

New Mexico is not alone in grappling with PFAS contamination from Air Force bases. Last week, the state of Michigan released its own advisory guidelines for PFAS. The health screen levels for drinking water in that state are now nine parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFNA, eight ppt for PFOS, 84 ppt for PFHxS and 1,000 ppt for PFBS.

Later this month, New Mexico state officials will host a public meeting in Clovis to discuss these and earlier test results, and answer questions from residents.

“We want to be accessible, available and approachable,” Kenney said.

NMED also works with the New Mexico Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture on PFAS contamination and testing. Ag department spokeswoman Kristie Garcia said the agency is in close contact with dairy producers in the state. One dairy was affected by the contaminated water, and had to pull their milk from the market. But, she said, milk from other dairies in the region is safe. “We continue to monitor the milk, to keep the food chain protected,” Garcia said.

And despite fears that the contamination from Cannon could migrate into other states, that’s not likely, said Geoffrey Rawling, senior field geologist with the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

After a news story earlier this year suggested the contamination was traveling through the Ogallala Aquifer—an interconnected groundwater system that lies below eastern New Mexico and Colorado, western Kansas and the panhandle of Texas—Rawlings’s phone started ringing. Farmers in Kansas were worried the PFAS contamination might reach them from Cannon.

Contamination of groundwater is bad news for the Clovis area, Rawlings explained. Especially since the base, dairies, the city and outlying residents all rely on groundwater—groundwater supplies that have been dropping due to decades of over-pumping. But Rawlings said the rate at which the water moves underground is so slow, it won’t be traveling to places like Dodge City, Kansas.

Contamination fears

The initial testing for PFAS began as part of a nationwide effort by the military: Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that activities at military bases across the country had contaminated groundwater with PFAS, a class of human-made chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS.

PFOA and PFOS are just two of the chemicals within the larger class of PFAS, which are toxic chemicals found in a variety of packaging materials and nonstick products that move through groundwater and biological systems. Even in small amounts, exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancer and problems like ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. PFAS 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.

This time last year, the Air Force identified where the chemicals might have been used at Cannon—pits where Air Force firefighters train to extinguish aircraft fires. Like at other bases, the culprit of the contamination was a now-discontinued firefighting foam. 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.

Those tests revealed concentrations of PFAS exceeding 26,000 nanograms per liter, or more than 300 times the lifetime drinking water exposure limit set by the federal government. In off-base wells, including those that supply drinking water to dairies, levels ranged from 25 to 1,600 nanograms per liter.

The state issued a notice of violation against the Air Force for the contamination at Cannon; the Air Force responded by suing the state. When PFAS contamination was found at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, the state again issued a notice of violation. And last month, the state filed its own lawsuit, alleging the Air Force isn’t doing enough to clean up or contain PFAS and asking a judge to compel the military to act on and fund cleanup at the two bases.

Kenney said the state will be releasing additional data about water testing at Holloman, too.

“We’re taking this very seriously, as is evident through our litigation, our commitment to ongoing sampling and our community meeting,” he said. “We plan to stay involved in the community. And we’re in this for the long haul.”

The state’s public meeting will be held on April 29, from 6 – 8 p.m. at the Dr. Jay Gurley Town Hall Room, Clovis Community College, 417 Schepps Blvd., Clovis, N.M.

Residents of Turquoise Estates who have questions about the recent test results should call the New Mexico Department of Health at 505-827-0006.