Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Clovis farmer and Curry County Commissioner Seth Martin was told by the Air Force late last summer that his water might be contaminated with chemicals from firefighting foam used at nearby Cannon Air Force Base.
Martin, who grows wheat and sorghum on a family farm five miles west of the base, had never even heard of PFAS – or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, the chemical culprit – before the Air Force reached out.
Martin said he takes issue with the Air Force filtering contaminated water but not quickly cleaning up groundwater that affects Clovis agriculture.
“I don’t want to badmouth the Department of Defense,” Martin said, “but I also don’t think it’s good to put a band-aid on a gushing wound. They need to do more. We need a cleanup process, not just litigation.”
New Mexico’s Environment Department and attorney general are suing the Air Force over PFAS chemicals that leaked into water near Clovis and Alamogordo from Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases, respectively. On July 24, the state requested that a federal court compel the Air Force to immediately begin cleanup while the suit progresses.
PFAS are a class of chemicals that are difficult to break down, and Environmental Protection Agency research links PFAS exposure to cancer.
Air Force spokesman Mark Kinkade said in July that military bases follow the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act to investigate where toxic foam may have contaminated drinking water supplies.
“The safety and health of our airmen, their families, and our community partners are our priority,” Kinkade said. “We are members of the communities where we serve and we share concerns about potential PFOS/PFOA contamination of drinking water, and we are moving aggressively to protect drinking water supplies connected to and affected by our installations.”
Kinkade did not respond for comment after the state’s latest legal action.
In addition to the firefighting foam on military bases, the chemicals were used in Teflon and Scotchgard. Details of the chemicals’ pervasiveness in the nation’s water supplies are still emerging. EPA health advisories for levels of the chemicals in drinking water are not enforceable.
For Clovis dairy farmer Art Schaap, who owns Highland Dairy, the toxic chemicals hit hard. Air Force tests last year showed that 13 of Schaap’s wells had high levels of PFAS exceeding federal advisories. That meant his cows’ milk and meat was also contaminated.
Schaap spoke during a news conference earlier this month hosted by the Environmental Working Group. The farmer said his cows are dying at a higher rate because of the contaminated water.
“We found out 10 months ago. I don’t know how long we’ve been exposed (to PFAS),” Schaap said. “The Air Force has known long before we found out. I can’t sell my milk. I don’t want it in my milk. I don’t want it in my hamburger. I’m not able to sell my animals. They are still under quarantine.”
New Mexico Department of Agriculture spokesperson Kristie Garcia told the Journal that milk from “the dairy which tested above the FDA’s screening level” was removed from sale at the end of October, and that none of the meat has entered the market since then. Garcia didn’t specify if the dairy was Schaap’s, but his property is located in the “area of concern” outlined by the environment department at an April public meeting in Clovis.
Kinkade said the Air Force focuses on drinking water for human consumption, not agriculture.
“Groundwater deserves the same protection for a person as it does for a cow or a crop. We won’t tolerate contamination of a limited aquifer,” said Environment Department Secretary James Kenney.
A study by the Environmental Working Group and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University reports drinking water for up to 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS from military and industrial sites.
In 2017, the New Mexico bases replaced the toxic foam with a more environmentally-friendly formula. But much of the damage had already been done.
The Air Force’s remedial investigation is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2021. Kinkade said the results will inform a cleanup feasibility study.
“PFOS/PFOA is a national issue that requires a national response strategy,” Kinkade said. “The Air Force is proud to be a leading part of that effort.”
Martin said that after announcing the contamination, Cannon hosted public meetings and kept the county informed.
But then the Curry County Commission passed a resolution in February requesting quicker cleanup and compensation to residents affected by the contamination. After that, Martin said Cannon representatives didn’t communicate with the commission about cleanup activities and stopped attending community town halls hosted by the state departments of health and agriculture.
In March, the Environment Department tested drinking water systems near Cannon, but didn’t detect PFAS above federal advisory levels in the drinking water.
For Martin, he wants to keep the issue “stirred up so that something gets done.”
“Sadly, it seems to be forgotten,” he said. “This is an environmental disaster in our area. I’m a lifetime resident of Curry County. It’s hard watching a region begin to die.”