January 20, 2021

NMED beings PFAS cleanup without military help

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.

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) selected a contractor to begin clean up efforts for PFAS contamination identified at two Air Force bases in the state. The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) use of a firefighting foam that contained PFAS compounds during training exercises caused the contamination. The foam was not properly disposed of for decades at the Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases, leading to groundwater contamination at both sites. 

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 contamination at Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases was first disclosed to NMED by the DOD in 2018. But the DOD has refused to clean up the contamination, which is currently threatening at least one commercial dairy farmer and a handful of private well owners

RELATED: Concerned leaders hopeful Biden administration will address PFAS contamination

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and NMED filed a complaint in federal district court in March 2019, 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. 

Meanwhile, the state Legislature allocated roughly $1 million to NMED to begin the clean up while the state’s litigation against the DOD plays out in court. 

NMED awarded a $1 million contract to environmental consultant Daniel B Stephens & Associates earlier this month to begin addressing the contamination. The company will start by studying the size and movement of the groundwater plumes near Clovis and Alamogordo and determining whether the contamination has impacted nearby public water systems and wildlife. 

“This is a major step forward in solving the problem handed to New Mexicans by the Defense Department,” NMED Secretary James Kenney said in a statement. “While New Mexicans are paying the bill for this effort today, the State is determined to recoup from the federal government every dollar we spend.”

NMED is also testing ground and surface water samples in 19 counties across the state, to ensure the PFAS compounds are not present. So far, the samples have not revealed levels of PFOS or PFOA—two compounds in the PFAS class of chemicals—at or above the U.S. EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory.