Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Three New Mexico legislators are expressing support of a lawsuit against the Air Force over toxic chemicals at two military bases.
State Sens. Mimi Stewart and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Andrés Romero have asked the U.S. District Court for permission to file an amici curiae, or friend of the court, brief supporting New Mexico’s lawsuit to compel the Air Force to clean up the contamination.
Firefighting foam that leaked into the ground near Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases contains chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The Environmental Protection Agency has linked the contaminants to low infant birth weights, limited childhood development, immune system damage and cancer.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department have asked the court to compel the Air Force to immediately outline the contamination plumes, test groundwater and drinking water, and provide alternative drinking water where chemicals are above health advisory levels.
The Air Force has asked for dismissal of the New Mexico lawsuit on grounds of sovereign immunity. The lawmakers’ brief says a dismissal would create a “problematic precedent” for cleanups at other federal facilities in the state.
All three Democratic lawmakers’ districts include Albuquerque areas affected by a bulk fuel spill from Kirtland Air Force Base.
Stewart told the Journal she sees similarities between the Air Force’s reaction to the Kirtland plume and the PFAS contamination near the other New Mexico bases.
“The problem with the Air Force appears to be that rather than working on a cleanup solution, they want to keep studying it,” Stewart said of all three contamination sites. “They’ve given us no plan, no timeline, not anything to make us feel better about the impact this is having on groundwater.”
Cannon Air Force Base announced in October 2018 that PFAS had leaked into groundwater on and around the base. At least one neighboring dairy has been forced to stop selling its milk because it contained dangerously-high PFAS levels.
In February 2019, the Air Force reported elevated PFAS levels at Holloman groundwater monitoring wells.
Sedillo Lopez, a retired law professor, said New Mexico would be left powerless if the lawsuit was dismissed and the Air Force wasn’t required to quickly clean up the chemicals.
“We live in a fragile high-desert environment, and we can’t afford to mess around with our water,” she said. “When the federal government cooperates with the state, it’s great. When they don’t, it places our water supply at risk.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.