Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo was served Wednesday with a “notice of violation” from the New Mexico Environment Department after monitoring wells tested at twice the acceptable levels for suspected carcinogenic contaminants.
The Air Force reported groundwater concentrations of polyfluoroalkyl perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at 137 parts per trillion at monitoring wells. The federal Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water health advisory for PFAS is 70 parts per trillion.
Sampling at other locations not covered by the base's groundwater discharge permit exceeded 1.2 million parts per trillion – more than 18,000 times the EPA's drinking water health advisory, according to New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden.
In a joint statement, New Mexico's governor and congressional delegation accused the Air Force of failing to respond urgently to the contamination and made clear it will “pursue all available avenues” to achieve compliance.
Jim Kenney, secretary-designate of the New Mexico Environment Department, said in a statement that the state is seeking to remedy the situation with “cooperative action” from the Air Force, but was “dismayed by the Air Force's lack of prompt response to the contamination.”
PFAS are a group of suspected carcinogenic chemicals that were present in fire-suppressant foam previously used by the Air Force. Hayden said the chemicals are known to be environmentally persistent and mobile in groundwater. They bioaccumulate in the food web – the interlocking and interdependent system of food chains.
Information on the EPA's website indicates that exposure to PFAS can lead to cancer, thyroid disorders and low infant birth weights. In animal studies, PFAS were a factor in problems related to reproduction and development, as well as the functioning of the liver, kidney and immunological system.
In response to Wednesday's notice, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and New Mexico's congressional delegation voiced their concerns in a conference call with U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. After the call, the governor and members of the delegation issued a joint statement:
“We firmly expect the Air Force to show much more urgency in responding to the contamination around Holloman and Cannon Air Force Bases than they have to date. Their activities have caused contamination in groundwater surrounding these bases, and it must be fixed immediately. We will continue to work with Secretary Wilson to ensure the Air Force moves quickly to determine the full extent of PFAS contamination and take substantive action to protect the health of impacted communities and our service members.”
The statement went on to say that New Mexico is “entitled to accountability” and that the state will “pursue all available avenues” to protect water supplies and ensure that “affected New Mexicans are made whole.”
The current groundwater issue at Holloman is the third time in recent years the Air Force has been asked to deal with contamination problems at a New Mexico base.
In November, the New Mexico Environment Department issued a notice to Cannon Air Force Base. Dozens of private wells tested around the base, located just outside Clovis, had PFAS levels three times higher than the EPA's health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. Two of those wells supply area dairies.
In Albuquerque, Kirtland Air Force Base has been trying to remediate a massive amount of groundwater contaminated by jet fuel leakage from underground pipes at a Kirtland loading facility built in the 1950s.
The Air Force first suspected there was a problem in 1999 and believed that it may have been leaking for decades. It wasn't until 2007 that investigations conducted by the Air Force revealed the fuel had reached the water table and was spreading beyond the base beneath the neighborhoods of southeast Albuquerque, toward the city's water wells.
Four extraction wells have since been drilled. So far, more than 370 million gallons of contaminated water has been removed, treated and pumped back into the aquifer.