December 30, 2019

2019 Top Stories #2: State, Air Force battle over PFAS clean up

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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.

After a revelatory Department of Defense report in 2018 identified 126 military bases where firefighting training activities had contaminated groundwater sources, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued two notices of violation against the Air Force over PFAS groundwater contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases.

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that 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 installations across the country.

In January, the U.S. Air Force responded to the first notice of violation for contamination at Cannon Air Force Base with a lawsuit against the state, challenging NMED’s authority to compel PFAS cleanup under the state permit. A month later, NMED issued a second notice for groundwater contamination at Holloman, where PFAS contamination levels in some areas were found to be 18,000 times the federal “lifetime” drinking water exposure advisory levels for the chemicals. Groundwater monitoring wells at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis detected concentrations of PFAS at roughly 345 times the federal advisory levels.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and NMED filed a complaint in federal district court in March, asking a judge to compel the Air Force to act on cleanup. The state also filed a preliminary injunction in federal court to get the Air Force to regularly test groundwater and surface waters, provide alternate water sources for those affected and provide voluntary blood tests for those who may have been exposed to the toxic chemicals.

The fight over who should be held responsible for the clean up moved to Congress in the National Defense Authorization bill for 2020, which included a provision to compel the Air Force to foot the bill for cleaning up PFAS contamination around the country. The White House announced that the president would veto the DoD spending bill if those PFAS clean up provisions made it to the final version. 

The New Mexico delegation was ultimately successful in keeping some of the PFAS provisions in the final version of the bill, which was passed by the U.S. House and Senate in early December. But environmental groups and Democrats in Congress were unhappy with the watered-down language around the chemicals. President Trump had not signed the bill into law as of press time.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency devised and released a PFAS action plan, outlining the agency’s timeline for developing a federal drinking water standard, but the state has criticized the EPA’s slow progress on the issue. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked the EPA to join in on the state’s litigation against the Air Force over the PFAS contamination, but the EPA declined to do so.

Near the end of 2019, Stephanie Stringer, director of NMED’s resource protection division, said the department cannot take action against any entity over PFAS contamination until the EPA establishes a federal regulatory standard for the chemicals.