Source of PFAS contamination in Santa Fe County remains unknown

For José “Chappy” Villegas, the PFAS contamination in his well represents more than just betrayal by the governments that were supposed to protect him. He described the contamination as an assault on him and his community south of Santa Fe. After learning about the potential contamination, Villegas had his blood tested and the tests revealed […]

Source of PFAS contamination in Santa Fe County remains unknown

For José “Chappy” Villegas, the PFAS contamination in his well represents more than just betrayal by the governments that were supposed to protect him. He described the contamination as an assault on him and his community south of Santa Fe.

After learning about the potential contamination, Villegas had his blood tested and the tests revealed PFAS chemicals within his blood.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly in the environment. The discovery of PFAS began as a lab accident in the 1930s and one of the early uses of PFAS was in atomic weapons during the Manhattan Project. Now there are thousands of types of PFAS that are prevalent in society. These are used in cleaning products, non-stick cookware, carpets, upholstery, firefighting foam and other products.

Treating water that has been contaminated with PFAS is expensive. Some of the methods include using granular activated carbon, ion exchange resins or high pressure membranes. 

But treatment isn’t one size fits all. Instead, treatment must be tailored to site specific characteristics and may even need multiple technologies.

Villegas has been relying on hauled water since learning of the contamination in his well.

The source of the contamination remains unknown, though officials say the plume stems from an area around the Santa Fe Airport.

The City of Santa Fe is required to provide wastewater sample data to the New Mexico Environment Department this week to help determine if that is the source of the contamination.

According to NMED, the city’s wastewater treatment solids disposal area is one of several potential sources of the PFAS contamination.

Other potential sources include the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam by the Army National Guard or the City of Santa Fe Fire Department. The Army National Guard used the film-forming foam at the airport until the early 2000s.

This foam has been tied to PFAS contamination at military bases and airports throughout the United States, including Holloman Air Force Base and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

According to NMED, the Army National Guard provided the state with sampling data from a site investigation. NMED received a 22,000-page final site investigation report in October and is coordinating with the Army National Guard as it moves forward with further investigations to identify the level of PFAS contamination and the nature of the contamination.

In November, Santa Fe County issued a proactive press release about the contamination in the communities of La Cienega and La Cieneguilla after preliminary test results documented PFAS chemicals in five out of six wells. Three of those wells exceeded the EPA health advisory levels. 

This news came months after the National Guard at the Santa Fe Army Aviation Support Facility disclosed findings of pollution. 

Villegas was one of the people who allowed Santa Fe County to take water samples from his well. He said he wasn’t initially told why they were taking samples to look for PFAS, which he said was because the county did not want to cause an unnecessary alarm or panic in the community.

He said he then got a call informing him about the PFAS in his water.

“When I got the call, I was advised ‘don’t drink the water,’” he said.

Villegas has followed that advice ever since.

NMED states that the Army National Guard informed the state agency that it was beginning preliminary site assessment in 2019.

In response to questions from NM Political Report, Santa Fe County denied that it is a source of the PFAS contamination, but said that it is trying to educate the public and help define the scope of the contamination.

The county contracted with a PFAS coordination team to help answer questions and refer the public to agencies like the EPA, NMED and the New Mexico Department of Health.

It is also working with NMED on grant funding to study the prevalence of PFAS in those areas.

Despite those efforts, Villegas is frustrated with what he sees as lack of transparency and lack of action on behalf of the government.

“This PFAS contamination in the state of New Mexico has been in our water system. People have been digesting that shit. People have been eating that shit,” he said and expressed frustration with what he sees as the government not taking steps to fix the problem.

Villegas’ community doesn’t exactly back up to the airport. He said he is a couple miles away from it.

He questioned if the community would have been left without a secondary source of water had the contamination impacted one of the nearby and wealthier white neighborhoods.

Villegas would like to see some short-term solutions like clean water being brought into the area and impacted residents receiving some sort of treatment technology to help remove the PFAS from their drinking water.

But he would also like to see a study done with blood samples from community members.

While he can’t conclusively tie it to cancer, Villegas said there have been 11 cancer deaths in the small community within the last six years.

He is also concerned about what impacts the PFAS in his blood will have on his health in the future.

While it is not uncommon for people to test positive for PFAS in their blood—97 percent of Americans do—the chemicals tend to accumulate in the body. Villegas is concerned about what impacts long-term, regular exposure to PFAS chemicals might have on his health.

He has heard people cite the statistics of how many people test positive for PFAS in their blood, but he said he finds it insensitive when that is referenced. Villegas is Native American and from a land grant community. He questioned whether the studies that resulted in the 97 percent statistic were representative of all Americans.

“Who’s the target population the CDC is testing?” he said.

Villegas’ story is becoming more common in New Mexico and communities throughout the United States.

Many of the sites with documented PFAS contamination are located near airports or military bases where the use of firefighting foam in training exercises has been linked to PFAS contamination.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in coordination with NMED, prepared an assessment of PFAS contamination using data from 2020 and 2021. This assessment was released in January.

According to the assessment, not much is known about the presence and distribution of these forever chemicals in New Mexico’s water resources, though PFAS has been detected in both public and private drinking water wells as well as springs and surface water.

During 2020 and 2021, the USGS and NMED collected samples from 117 wells located in what is known as an unconfined aquifer. Twenty-seven of those sites had detectable levels of PFAS, though none of them exceeded levels set in a 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory. Those samples were separate from the ones taken by Santa Fe County that found PFAS exceeding the advisory levels in Villegas’ well.

Samples were also taken at 24 springs and 18 surface water locations. 

The researchers analyzed the samples for 28 PFAS compounds.

When it came to surface water, only one sample did not have any detectable levels of PFAS. That was the Rio Grande in the Taos area, where samples were collected twice.

Both the Rio Grande and the Pecos River showed concentrations of PFAS increasing at downstream locations.

Meanwhile, teams at national labs such as Sandia National Laboratories are researching better, more affordable ways to remove PFAS from water.

Following pressure from New Mexico leaders including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules that would designate several PFAS chemicals as hazardous waste.

This story has been corrected to state that the City of Santa Fe’s fire department is a potential source.

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