September 15, 2020

Cannon Air Force Base to pay $250k for PFAS permit violations; contamination cleanup slow

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer

Firefighters from the 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron control a fire during a training exercise at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Jan. 18, 2019.

Cannon Air Force Base will pay a $251,000 “administrative fee” to the state in lieu of the $1.7 million fine that the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) imposed on the Air Force earlier this year for alleged permit violations related to PFAS contamination.  

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 in Eastern New Mexico and at Holloman Air Force Base, located west of Alamogordo in Southern New Mexico. The pollutants have also been detected at several dairy farms and private wells that surround the bases

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

In January, NMED fined the Air Force $1.7 million for multiple violations of state law regarding PFAS chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base and issued an administrative compliance order to the Air Force for unlawfully discharging wastewater without a groundwater permit at Cannon Air Force Base since April 1, 2019, after the permit expired at the end of March. 

At the time, NMED said it may assess penalties of up to $25,000 per day for “continued noncompliance.” 

Last week, the Water Quality Control Commission approved a settlement agreement between NMED and the Air Force over the permit violations. The Air Force submitted its permit renewal documents on January 15, 2020, five days after the compliance order was issued. 

The permit renewal has not yet been approved, but NMED and the Air Force reached a settlement agreement that allows the Air Force to continue operating and discharging effluent from its wastewater treatment facility in the meantime. 

The two parties also agreed that the Air Force would pay an administrative fee of $250,947.60 to NMED instead of the $1.7 million fine, thereby resolving the compliance order “in compromise” and “to avoid further legal proceedings,” the settlement agreement states. 

An NMED spokesperson confirmed that the $251,000 fee and settlement agreement is “entirely limited to the Department’s January 2020 administrative compliance order for violations of groundwater discharge permitting program requirements.” The settlement has no bearing on litigation between the state and the U.S. Department of Defense related to PFAS contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases “caused by decades of use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams,” according to NMED. 

RELATED: New Mexico joins multidistrict litigation against firefighting foam manufacturers for PFAS contamination

“Unfortunately, federal facilities in New Mexico have a history of disregarding state environmental laws,” said NMED Secretary James Kenney in a statement. “The integrity of every environmental regulatory scheme is rooted in compliance. U.S. Department of Defense facilities must comply with permitting requirements to protect our groundwater that New Mexicans rely on for drinking water and agriculture.” 

Cleanup of PFAS groundwater contamination still slow

Stephanie Stringer, NMED’s Resource Protection Division Director, told state legislators that NMED has not made much progress yet in cleaning up the known PFAS contamination in groundwater at Holloman and Cannon Air Force Bases, which was first disclosed by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018. 

“We’re not even complete with the facility assessment phase,” Stringer said. “There’s been contamination of PFAS confirmed at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, but we haven’t really looked for it everywhere that we need to be looking for it.” 

“There’s very limited data available that’s necessary to determine the comprehensive nature and extent of the contamination at those two sites,” she said. “Our expectation is that the responsible party steps up and fulfills the obligations to determine the nature and extent [of the contamination]. When we didn’t see that happening to our satisfaction, that’s the basis for us pursuing the litigation. We’re not anywhere near getting to figuring out how to clean up the PFAS contamination.”

Stringer said much of that delay is due to the Air Force dragging its feet in delineating the plume. 

“We haven’t seen the responsible party gathering the data that’s necessary to feed into that process, so NMED is taking a proactive approach,” she added, referencing a $1 million legislative appropriation NMED received during the 2020 legislative session. 

“We’re using that appropriation to characterize and delineate the contamination,” she said. “We’re in the early stages of procuring a contractor to do that work.”