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EPA to help farmers clean up toxic foam chemicals

Clovis dairy farmer Art Schapp pictured at Highland Dairy in 2016. Schapp’s water wells have been contaminated with toxic chemicals from Cannon Air Force Base, so he can no longer sell his cows’ milk or meat. (Courtesy of Farm Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Clovis dairy farmer Art Schaap still can’t sell the milk or meat from his cows.

It’s been more than a year since the animals tested positive for toxic chemicals that leaked into the dairy’s water wells from nearby Cannon Air Force Base.

But Schaap’s situation might change soon, thanks to a new $4.8 million Environmental Protection Agency fund to research cleanup of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the nation’s agriculture sector.

EPA Region 6 administrator Ken McQueen announced the funding Friday at the annual New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau meeting in Albuquerque.

“While our scientific understanding of PFAS continues to develop, the people of New Mexico, especially farmers and ranchers, already know how it can affect the water resources that are so critical to the state’s environmental and economic well-being,” McQueen said in a statement.

An EPA spokesperson told the Journal that New Mexico Department of Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte had helped highlight the need for federal cleanup assistance for farmers and ranchers, especially in New Mexico.

Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis is one of 400 military sites nationwide that has tested positive for a toxic chemical in firefighting foam that seeped into groundwater supplies on and around the base. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

“I’m glad the EPA put this money forward, but there is so much more work to do, whether it’s in agriculture or water supplies,” Witte said. “This is a forever chemical, so it’s forever on our radar from this point forward.”

Details of PFAS pollution in New Mexico and the rest of the nation continue to emerge.

Federal studies show the chemicals can cause a variety of health effects, from low birth weights to high cholesterol to specific cancers.

For decades, the chemicals were used in firefighting foam at the nation’s Air Force bases. The foam was deployed for training exercises or combating high-intensity fires.

The water-repellent compounds were also in widely used products like Teflon and Scotchgard.

In April 2018, the U.S. military released a list naming more than 400 bases with PFAS contamination.

Cannon announced in October 2018 that PFAS had seeped into groundwater on and around the base. And, in February 2019, the U.S. Air Force reported PFAS at Holloman Air Force Base groundwater monitoring wells.

New Mexico is suing the Air Force over the chemicals at and adjacent to Cannon and Holloman bases near Clovis and Alamogordo.

The state has asked the Air Force to outline where the contamination exists, clean it up, and address any public health effects from the toxins.

In July, the state’s environment department and attorney general requested a preliminary injunction to compel the Air Force to begin immediate cleanup. Those legal actions await a federal judge’s decision.

“The decision to litigate was not what we preferred, but the Air Force showed that they weren’t interested in making meaningful progress for New Mexico,” Environment Department Secretary James Kenney told the Journal on Friday. “We can’t wait to be on their timeline. The notion of creating more legacy contamination in our state should be a moment that we’re all intolerant of.”

For months, the Air Force did provide water bottles for drinking to residents near Cannon. But the Department of Defense has not yet outlined or cleaned up the groundwater.

NMED plans to request $1.2 million in state money from the Legislature for its own delineation of the chemical plumes. Kenney said that option may be quicker than waiting for the litigation results. The department is also seeking a boost in its general fund for this year, which could pay for research and remediation.

“The state just doesn’t have the money to clean up other people’s messes,” he said, adding that department-wide staff shortages and budget constraints make the work that much more difficult.

The Environment Department has sampled public water supplies on and near the bases, while the New Mexico Department of Health worked with nearby residents on voluntary testing of private water wells. Drinking water supplies have not been found to have concerning levels of the chemicals.

NMED also partnered with the EPA from 2013 to 2015 to test municipal drinking water supplies for PFAS. One test showed higher PFAS levels at a site near Hobbs, but the results were below the EPA action level.

The state and the federal government want to create a drinking water standard for the chemical, as it is currently only regulated by a health advisory.

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.

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