November 7, 2019

‘Everyone is watching New Mexico’: Update shows no progress on PFAS clean up

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

PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016.

Sitting before the state legislature’s interim committee on radioactive and hazardous materials, Walter Bradley told lawmakers to look at a red dot on a colored map provided to each member. 

“That red dot is a $20 million dairy facility that is now worth zero,” Bradley, who handles government and business affairs for Dairy Farmers of America, told committee members. “There’s no money, [the farmer] can’t sell his milk, he can’t sell his cows, he’s completely bankrupt. That dot is right next to the Cannon Air Force Base fire training facility.”

Bradley, who was Lieutenant Governor under Gary Johnson, spoke alongside Stephanie Stringer, director of New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) resource protection division, to give the interim committee an update on the PFAS contamination issues in the state before the next legislative session. 

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that can move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016.

The Air Force began investigating PFAS discharges across its installations in 2015, and the chemicals were detected in 2018 in groundwater at Cannon Air Force Base, located west of Clovis and at Holloman Air Force Base, located west of Alamogordo. The pollutants have also been detected at several dairy farms and private wells that surround the bases. 

RELATED: Groundwater contamination devastates a New Mexico dairy – and threatens public health

“The dairies have been hugely impacted by the PFAS contamination around Cannon Air Force Base,” Stringer told committee members. But in the four years since the Air Force investigation, little progress has been made in cleaning up the contamination. 

A federal PFAS standard is not assured

Delay in action is partly due to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s sluggish response to what it categorizes as an emerging contaminant. The EPA takes the lead on developing national standards and maximum contamination levels for acceptable human exposure to dangerous chemicals in water supplies and in the environment. The EPA established a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water. 

But as a “health advisory level” — and not a federal regulatory standard — those numbers are “non-enforceable, non-regulatory numbers,” Stringer said. “We can’t take action against an entity that is proven to contaminate the environment above those levels.”

RELATED: Guv accuses EPA of neglecting duties in PFAS contamination inaction

The EPA released its PFAS action plan in February 2019, eight months after the Air Force first revealed the contamination. “This was really in response to the numerous different states struggling to deal with this issue,” Stringer said. “The EPA realized they really needed to get together on this and they developed an action plan.”

So far, not much action has taken place. The plan includes a directive for the EPA to begin the process of developing maximum contamination levels for PFAS chemicals. That process should be underway right now, but there’s no assurance the EPA will ever develop a standard. 

“I want to be clear — that does not mean they’re going to establish a maximum contaminant level for PFAS. That means they’re going to start the process at which they evaluate whether or not one needs to be established,” Stringer said. “I want to make sure there’s clarity on that point. There’s no definitive commitment to having a maximum contaminant level in drinking water from EPA at this point.”

Air Force still refusing to cooperate with state

The Air Force’s resistance to cleaning up the contamination has also slowed progress in dealing with the issue.

Stringer explained to the committee that though NMED has primacy in enforcing hazardous waste regulations under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and has the authority to protect groundwater under the state Water Quality Act, it does not conduct clean up operations itself. Instead, the department requires the responsible parties to clean up spills or contamination issues when they arise. 

“The New Mexico Environment Department’s role in PFAS contamination is somewhat limited at this point,” Stringer said.

RELATED: State presses Air Force to take action on PFAS contamination

“We hold the responsible party accountable and require them to do the clean up, and then review the clean up activities to make sure they’re being done in compliance with the regulations,” She said. “Typically, NMED is not the agency that comes in and cleans up all of the contamination.”

In November 2018, NMED issued a notice of violation to the Air Force for “failing to contain and remove the damage caused by its discharge of PFAS into groundwater,” Stringer said. One month later, NMED asked the Air Force to conduct corrective actions for the contamination as outlined in its hazardous waste permit. 

The Air Force has not yet complied with the state’s requests.

“In January 2019, the Air Force challenged our authority to require corrective action pursuant of their hazardous waste permit,” Stringer said. That prompted NMED and the New Mexico Attorney General to sue the Air Force seeking action on “the imminent and substantial endangerment caused by the PFAS pollution,” Stringer said.

“We’re trying to take aggressive action as quickly as possible to resolve this problem,” Stringer said.

NM dairies still hurting as the PFAS plume heads south east

The Air Force has supplied bottled water and carbon filters to homes in New Mexico and across the country where PFAS chemicals were detected in drinking water and linked to its facilities. Near Cannon, the chemicals were detected in two private domestic wells and one house served by a public water cooperative, but no contamination was found at any of the entry points in the public water systems in the area.

But discharges of PFAS chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base have seeped into the Ogallala aquifer, which sits beneath the base and the surrounding community, creating a plume of contaminated water that appears to be moving southward and eastward.   

RELATED: See all of NM Political Report’s coverage on PFAS contamination

The rough boundaries of the contamination were derived in part by sampling conducted by NMED in cooperation with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico Department of Health. 

“The extent of the contamination has not been fully delineated by the Air Force,” Stringer said.

Bradley emphasized the significance of that problem in his testimony. “This [Cannon Air Force Base] map is missing data, and we need more data,” he said. “That flow is going directly towards several other dairies and wells for the public water supply. We don’t know for sure how fast that channel is moving.”

Bradley said the Air Force had told him the plume was moving 50 feet per year, based on Air Force data. At 50 feet per year, that would mean the plume has been traveling for 400 years.

“If you do the math, it’s an impossible figure. It doesn’t compute,” Bradley said.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers in the area are struggling to deal with the contamination, which has compromised some milk production in the state. A few farmers have had to dump their entire inventory of milk, while others are meticulously testing water and milk supplies for PFAS contamination. Bradley said dairy farmers asked the Air Force for agricultural filters to help remove the PFAS chemicals from the water, but the Air Force refused to provide them. Some farmers have since installed their own. 

“The good news out of this fiasco is that none of the contaminated milk hit the market,” Bradley said. “It was all blocked, and all the dairymen in this area are monitoring.”

But the dairy farmers still need help dealing with the contamination. Bradley said he hopes the pressure on these farmers can be at least partially relieved through some of the language that has been added to the federal Defense Authorization bill, which has passed the U.S. Senate and is currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The language would help impacted farmers receive clean water from the Air Force, allow the Air Force to acquire contaminated property and accelerate PFAS clean up and provide the funding for additional studies, Bradley said. 

It’s unclear if that language will make it to the final version of the bill. President Donald Trump threatened to veto a bill over language that would have required action on PFAS contamination. Much of the future progress for clean-up of the contamination hinges on the passage of the bill, Bradley said. 

“All of us are waiting on this. New Mexico, and this particular site, is the site that is driving everything that’s going on, primarily because it’s [possibly] getting into the food chain,” Bradley said. “If it gets into the food chain, you’ve got a major issue that goes beyond where we are right now. Everyone is looking at New Mexico.”