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

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.

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

The state of New Mexico has joined a multidistrict litigation against the manufacturers of the aqueous film-forming foams that were used in firefighting activities across the country and in Air Force Bases in New Mexico which led to groundwater contamination. 

A U.S. judicial panel earlier this year flagged the state’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense over the contamination for inclusion in the multidistrict tort proceeding, which encompasses roughly 500 pending cases related to PFAS contamination. The litigation will be heard in a U.S. District Court in South Carolina. “That’s a recent development,” said Chris Atencio, Assistant General Counsel at the New Mexico Environment Department. “We’ve gone through that process and our case is now included in that. We’re working with our council, the Attorney General’s office and folks internally to try to evaluate the requirements of that process and how best to proceed.

State fines Air Force $1.7 million for PFAS contamination at Cannon AFB

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) fined the United States Air Force $1.7 million for multiple violations of state law regarding PFAS chemicals. NMED announced late Thursday that the department 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. Read all of our PFAS contamination coverage here

“The Air Force continues to ignore New Mexico’s environmental laws,” said NMED Sec. James Kenney in a statement. “Rather than address PFAS contamination, the Department of Defense shows no interest in helping afflicted communities and impacted natural resources.”

Cannon Air Force Base is one of two military installations in the state where PFAS chemicals have contaminated groundwater.

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

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.

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

Sitting before the state legislature’s interim committee on radioactive and hazardous materials, Walter Bradley told lawmakers to look at a red dot on a colored map provided to each member. 

“That red dot is a $20 million dairy facility that is now worth zero,” Bradley, who handles government and business affairs for Dairy Farmers of America, told committee members. “There’s no money, [the farmer] can’t sell his milk, he can’t sell his cows, he’s completely bankrupt. That dot is right next to the Cannon Air Force Base fire training facility.”

Bradley, who was Lieutenant Governor under Gary Johnson, spoke alongside Stephanie Stringer, director of New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) resource protection division, to give the interim committee an update on the PFAS contamination issues in the state before the next legislative session. 

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 and at Holloman Air Force Base, located west of Alamogordo.

Army: No PFAS contamination at White Sands Missile Range

U.S. Army officials say no PFAS contamination has been detected at White Sands Missile Range, contradicting an article published by NM Political Report on September 24. That article was on this page, but is replaced with this post. Army personnel contacted NM Political Report Thursday to clarify the issue. Our initial article incorrectly stated groundwater samples from White Sands Missile Range tested positive for PFNA, which belongs to the PFAS family of chemicals found in firefighting foam. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of human-made chemicals, and include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).

Guv accuses EPA of neglecting duties in PFAS contamination inaction

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham criticized the EPA for its refusal to join the state’s lawsuit against the Air Force for PFAS contamination at two bases in the state. 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 bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) found “significant amounts of PFAS” in the groundwater, under both bases. The Air Force has since discontinued the use of the chemicals.

State presses Air Force to take action on PFAS contamination

The state of New Mexico wants a federal court to compel the Air Force to address contamination at two U.S. Air Force bases. The contamination comes from PFAS, a class of chemicals that came from the use of a since-discontinued firefighting foam at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases. Areas of contamination span throughout the country with hundreds of confirmed locations across 43 states, largely from places like military bases. See all of NM Political Report’s coverage on PFAS contamination

The state filed a preliminary injunction to get the Air Force to regularly test groundwater and surface water testing, to provide alternate water sources for those affected and provide voluntary blood tests for those who may have been exposed to the toxic chemicals. The injunction was filed by the Attorney General and the New Mexico Environment Department.

See where PFAS pollution has been confirmed in the American West

Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals exist in furniture, waterproof makeup and clothing, nonstick cookware, popcorn bags, the foam used to extinguish petroleum fires (which is different from the slurry used across the West to fight wildfires), and countless other items. Known collectively as PFAS, this class of chemicals contains more than 5,000 different compounds that are often called “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down in the environment. PFAS chemicals are an omnipresent, if largely invisible, part of daily life. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. Yet numerous studies have linked exposure to them to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened childhood immunity and other health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2007 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that PFAS are in the blood of 98% of Americans.

NM Environment Review: Climate change ‘fingerprints’ in the 20th century + news around the state

This week we have a story about a new study in Nature that shows the “fingerprints” of climate change on 20th century drying. Next week, we’ll look at what some local governments in New Mexico are doing to prepare people for the continued impacts of warming. • There are two other recent studies worth checking out, including one in Nature about the risks of hydroclimate regime shifts in the western United States and another in Earth’s Future, published by the American Geological Union, about adaptation to water shortages caused by population growth and climate change. • Rebecca Moss with the Santa Fe New Mexican reports on the lack of progress on safety concerns at Los Alamos National Laboratory. • The Carlsbad Current Argus’s Adrien Hedden reports on New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard’s executive order to create a “buffer zone” around Chaco Canyon. The order enacts a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on 72,776 acres of state trust lands in the area. • Writing for High Country News, Nick Bowlin covers a judge’s ruling that reinstates the valuation rule, which the Trump administration repealed. We wrote about those changes in 2017, after the first time a judge ruled that the U.S. broke the law when “updating” how royalties are calculated on federal and tribal lands.