New Mexico Sues Air Force for Toxic Groundwater Contamination
The New Mexico Environmental Defense agency is suing the U.S. Air Force for toxic contamination of groundwater surrounding multiple Air Force bases across the state, resulting from past military firefighting activities.
New Mexico’s Environmental Defense department in its lawsuit, filed March 5, against the Air Force maintains the contaminants, two polyflouraoalkyl substances known as PFAS, which are found in nonstick coatings such as Teflon, as well as in firefighting foams used to extinguish petroleum-based fires have contaminated groundwater.
Millions of Americans have already been exposed to the compounds as they are present in about 1 percent of the nation’s water supply, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The rampant migration of the toxins through water sources has led to the contamination of 1,500 water systems, but the concentration and exposure increases dramatically on and near military bases.
The health effects of exposure to an excess of PFAS include thyroid disorders, reproductive and developmental complications, increased liver enzymes and decreased vaccination response, according to EPA findings collected nearly 20 years ago.
The lawsuit addresses violations at both Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the Canon Air Force Base, near Clovis, New Mexico.
But these bases are only two of at least 126 military bases in the U.S. that have been found responsible for PFAS contamination in groundwater. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) announced this in June 2018, though its first water inspections began years earlier. During the past year, both state and congressional efforts to address that exposure have begun.
Currently, cleanup of the contaminant is in litigation, leaving the ranching and farming industries at risk in New Mexico and beyond.
Detection of PFAS in Groundwater in New Mexico
In 2013 the EPA began testing for PFAS in public drinking water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Following a warning announced by Michigan officials that drinking water might be contaminated, several veterans came forward to the Grand Rapids Press in June 2016 to complain of symptoms they felt originated at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
In June 2016 the Assistant Secretary of Defense—Energy, Installation and Environment directed all military departments to test drinking water systems on base and off-site in the surrounding areas.
About 3 million Americans get their drinking water from DoD sources, according to the U.S. Office of Accountability, and in 2017 and 2018 the government tested 524 drinking water systems throughout the nation.
In November 2018 site inspection testing at Holloman Air Force Base revealed levels of toxicity in the groundwater that were 18,000 times higher than recommended levels.
“We’re extremely concerned about the contamination,” NMED Secretary-designate James Kenney warned when inspection reports from Holloman were published in January. “But we’re also extremely concerned about the Air Force’s lack of remedial response.”
In 2018 the DoD also tested off-base wells near Cannon Air Base for PFAS contamination, where a range of concentration levels exceeded the recommended exposure limit. Inspections traced this contaminant to pits on the base where Air Force firefighters had trained to extinguish fires on aircraft.
Toxic Groundwater in New Mexico Threatens Farming
Some of these wells supplied drinking water to dairy farms in Clovis, resulting in the contamination of livestock and threatened livelihood in an agriculturally dependent region of the state.
One dairy farmer, Art Schaap, told news organization Searchlight New Mexico that he plans to kill all 4,000 of his cows, and dump 15,000 gallons of contaminated milk each day. The water testing results released in mid-2018 confirmed that his soil, animals, and body were all likely carriers of a high-concentration of PFAS that had traveled to them from the Cannon Air Force Base.
Schaap questions why the Air Force on Cannon did not inform him sooner.
An additional threat to the agriculture industry is that PFAS are known to bioaccumulate, meaning that they grow and reproduce with each step in the food chain. If humans or animals consumed products contaminated by the compound, they will in turn have a larger concentration of PFAS in their system.
And New Mexico is not the only state detecting the exposure. In total 401 active and former federal installations had either a known or suspected release of PFAS, as announced by the U.S. Department of State.
The New Mexico Groundwater Cleanup—Mired in Litigation
In response to the publicized detection of PFAS in the off-base wells, NMED issued notice of violation of the state’s Water Quality Act to the Air Force in relation to Cannon. In December the state issued a corrective action permit, which detailed the PFAS that required immediate cleanup.
On January 17 the Air Force argued the details of the permit with a federal action lawsuit that amended the demands of cleanup from the permit. As plaintiffs the Air Force is challenging the NMED’s authority and ability to compel cleanup.
Soon after, the defendants responded with their own litigation against the military branch.
“In the absence of cooperation by the Air Force, the New Mexico Environment Department will move swiftly and decisively to ensure protections for both health and the environment,” NMED Secretary James Kenney said on March 5.
Air Force representatives have declined to comment on the state’s legal action against them but have defended their response to PFAS contamination since detection.
According to Mark Kinkade from the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, the military has provided alternate water to those areas where activity on bases likely contributed to contamination.
EPA Plans No Changes to Safe Drinking Water Law
Despite its previous consideration of the exposure risks of PFAS, the current EPA administration has not federally designated the substances as hazardous, and Politico reported that the draft plan administrator Andrew Wheeler approved will not include plans to create a formal drinking water standard in relation to the compound.
As such, there is no regulation of PFAS in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The non-enforceable EPA health advisories issued in 2016 state that the maximum exposure level of PFAS should not exceed 70 parts per trillion, or 70 nanograms per liter. Samples at Holloman base reached as high as 1.29 million parts per trillion.
New Mexico state representatives reacted strongly to the news of the threats to their drinking water supply. A bipartisan congressional committee formed to urge Wheeler to address the widespread contaminant and adjust the federal standards.
Congress Writes Letter Urging Action on Safe Drinking Water
Twenty senators, including Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), penned a letter to Wheeler to encourage his speedy action.
“We urge you to ensure that EPA’s National PFAS Management Plan includes a commitment to develop federal drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act,” the letter reads. “We also request that EPA provide briefings to our offices on the agency’s efforts on this issue, as well as regular updates on the progress of those efforts.”