EPA announces $18.9M in funding to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the New Mexico Environment Department nearly $19 million to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water. This $18.9 million of funding, which comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was announced during a press conference Thursday in Santa Fe. Earthea Nance, the administrator for EPA’s Region 6, spoke […]

EPA announces $18.9M in funding to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the New Mexico Environment Department nearly $19 million to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.

This $18.9 million of funding, which comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was announced during a press conference Thursday in Santa Fe.

Earthea Nance, the administrator for EPA’s Region 6, spoke about the challenges that small water systems face and she talked about PFAS.

PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s in a variety of applications, Nance said. They’re valued for their ability to repel water and oil.

“There are thousands of pieces and they break down very slowly,” she said.

Nance said scientific evidence shows that long-term exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause cancer as well as other illnesses. When pregnant people are exposed to PFAS chemicals, it can have a variety of impacts on the fetus.

Despite these dangers, millions of people nationwide have been exposed to PFAS chemicals through food and water contamination.

The EPA announced a new rule in April that created the first-ever enforceable drinking water standards for some types of PFAS chemicals. Nance said this rule will be vital in reducing exposure to PFAS and saving lives.

In New Mexico, PFAS contamination has impacted dairy farmers near Cannon Air Force Base and minority communities south of Santa Fe. 

The full extent of PFAS contamination is unknown.

Because they break down so slowly, PFAS are often referred to as forever chemicals, but NMED Secretary James Kenney said the funding will help New Mexico protect its drinking water. 

“These forever chemicals will not be a forever legacy,” he said.

 Kenney said often the small, disadvantaged water systems don’t have the technical expertise needed to address removing PFAS and other emerging contaminants and the majority of the water systems in the state meet the definition of small and disadvantaged.

While the funding announced on Thursday will help water utilities, including mutual domestics, communities that rely on well water such as La Cienega and La Cieneguilla will not benefit from this round of funding despite having had wells test positive for PFAS contamination.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who represents New Mexico, provided a statement that was read aloud during the press conference in which he highlighted two pieces of legislation that he is sponsoring to address PFAS. In the statement, he said that the legislation will create more flexibility in how federal dollars can be spent, which could open doors to getting private wells tested for PFAS.

“These groundwater sources are not subject to the same oversight of testing for contamination as public water sources,” he said in the statement.

A PFAS test kit can cost hundreds of dollars and not everyone who lives in areas with known PFAS contamination can spare that money. Meanwhile, scientists at places like Sandia National Laboratories are researching ways to efficiently and affordably remove PFAS chemicals from domestic water supplies, including at the tap. Currently, the options for removing PFAS from drinking water can be cost prohibitive for many low-income residents.

With the new funding also comes some challenges.

Many of the mutual domestic water utilities that New Mexicans rely upon for drinking water are small and often lack the technical expertise to even apply for grant funding.

Kenney said NMED has hired people to provide technical assistance to water utilities and has also hired a contractor to help the utilities with their financial audits, which can often serve as a barrier for water systems that are seeking grant funding.

He said the agency is also working to try to build capacity at the small utilities, including by encouraging more people to become utility operators.

“It pays really well, it’s not a lot of chemistry and you can live in great places in New Mexico,” he said about utility operators.

Additionally, Kenney spoke about reducing the amount of PFAS that can even enter the water systems in the first place.

He said he would like New Mexico to follow in the footsteps of other states and prohibit the non-essential use of PFAS. That is something he said the NMED is going to push for during the legislative session next year.

“Do we really need stain-resistant placemats and neckties?” he said. 

He said that he does appreciate the water-resistant clothing when hiking in a rainstorm, but “I think I would rather get wet than get poisoned.”

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