New Mexico’s top environmental regulator on Thursday warned state lawmakers that taxpayers could be on the hook for groundwater contamination since the U.S. Defense Department continues to challenge the state’s authority to force cleanup of “forever chemicals” at two air bases.
The plumes of PFAS compounds are projected to move farther beyond the boundaries of Cannon Air Force Base, and Environment Secretary James Kenney told a panel of lawmakers during a meeting in Clovis that it’s an urgent economic and environmental issue.
The state already has spent $6 million on the problem, he said.
The Defense Department has worked with other communities in neighboring Texas to remediate similar damage, but not in New Mexico, where the agency opted in January 2019 to file a lawsuit challenging the state’s regulatory authority.
Work also has been done in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont and Colorado, and Kenney said that leaves New Mexico as the only state being sued by the federal government over this issue.
“We have to tackle this,” Kenney told members of the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee, “and unfortunately we are tackling it as taxpayers, as opposed to the Department of Defense tackling it as the polluter.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved Friday to designate two “forever chemicals” used in cookware, carpets and firefighting foams as hazardous substances, a step that would clear the way for quicker cleanup of the toxic compounds, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.
Designation as a hazardous substance under the so-called Superfund law doesn’t ban the chemicals.
But it requires that releases of PFOA and PFOS into soil or water be reported to federal, state or tribal officials if they meet or exceed certain levels. The EPA could then require cleanups to protect public health and recover cleanup costs.
PFOA and PFOS have been voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers but are still in limited use and remain in the environment because they do not degrade over time.
The compounds are part of a larger cluster of chemicals known as PFAS that have been used in consumer products and industry since the 1940s.
The Superfund law allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites and forces parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work.
Records obtained by the state Environment Department through public record requests do not indicate plans by the federal government to clean up contamination beyond Cannon’s boundaries.
The Air Force Civil Engineering Center announced earlier this spring that it was installing groundwater monitoring wells as a part of an investigation to determine the extent of potential PFAS compounds in groundwater from the base. The Air Force also installed filtration systems in 2021 and provided drinking water to some well owners who had their supplies tainted.
Advocates have long urged action on PFAS after thousands of communities detected PFAS chemicals in their water. PFAS chemicals have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations and at least 200 million people in the United States are drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned some PFAS compounds found in drinking water were more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at low levels.
The agency issued health advisories that set thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 parts per trillion.
With the EPA poised to set a drinking water standard for the compounds later this year, New Mexico lawmakers asked if that would mean more drinking water wells in the Clovis area and those around Alamogordo – home to Holloman Air Force Base – would have to be shut down if the level of contamination is detectable.
Kenney said there are numerous sites around New Mexico – from a national guard armory in Rio Rancho to an old army depot east of Gallup – where there’s suspected contamination.
Outside of Clovis, fourth generation dairy farmer Art Schaap had his livelihood destroyed by contamination from the nearby base. About 3,600 of his cows had to be euthanized, he had to let dozens of employees go, and it’s unlikely his farm will ever be contamination-free.
He told lawmakers about the resulting financial ruin and the mental and physical anguish.
“We’re just scratching the surface now with this problem,” Schaap said, warning that other dairies are next in line if the contamination isn’t addressed.
The state has helped with the disposal of the toxic livestock carcasses and state officials vowed Thursday they would continue to fight the Defense Department in court. A federal judge just last week dismissed the agency’s lawsuit, saying it was a matter that needed to be decided by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
Lawmakers suggested they might consider amending the state’s hazardous waste law to remove any ambiguity regarding the Environment Department’s authority for toxic chemicals like PFAS. They also discussed the possibility of an epidemiological study of residents and veterans to see if they have been exposed to the chemicals.