Here’s an in-depth report from Laura Paskus that’s running in The Santa Fe Reporter. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Today, we know the [firefighting] foam contained toxic chemicals responsible for polluting the water around hundreds of military bases nationwide, including Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases in New Mexico. And the toxic chemicals are present in the drinking water of millions of Americans…
Over the years, [Kevin] Ferrara has learned that the military knew Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) was dangerous—and so did the companies that manufactured it. But without federal regulations that set drinking water standards or hazardous waste limits, states like New Mexico still can’t hold the Pentagon accountable for the pollution that has crept from the bases into the wells of local residents and businesses. Meanwhile, military firefighters like Ferrara wonder what’s happening within their own bodies—and the bodies of those whose water they polluted.
In the waning days of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) was grappling with a problem. A “forever” problem, as it turns out.
Contractors hired by the military were investigating whether AFFF used at the state’s three Air Force bases had contaminated groundwater with PFAS.
In an August 2018 conference call, Air Force officials told state officials that PFAS had been found in wells at Cannon Air Force Base at concentrations above the US Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. Further studies showed the levels exceed 26,000 parts per trillion—more than 370 times that EPA health advisory—and that PFAS was also in off-base wells that supply homes and dairies in Clovis.
In October, NMED, the New Mexico Department of Health and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture publicly announced the presence of the contamination on and off the base. They advised private well-owners within a 4-mile radius of the base to use bottled water. NMED issued a notice of violation against the Air Force for breaking state regulations. The agency issued “corrective action permits” with cleanup mandates for the military’s state permits.
But in January 2019, just after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office, the US Department of Defense sued New Mexico, challenging the state’s authority to mandate cleanup.
And although the state made no announcements nor issued any corrective actions, a report the Air Force submitted to NMED during the Martinez administration showed that groundwater samples of PFAS at Holloman Air Force Base were as high as 1.294 million parts per trillion. In February 2019, NMED issued a notice of violation against the Air Force over Holloman, too.
The following month, in March 2019, New Mexico filed its own lawsuit, asking a federal judge to compel the Air Force to act on, and pay for, cleanup at Cannon and Holloman.
But that hasn’t worked out as planned.
“We wanted action quickly. When that wasn’t available, or that wasn’t on the table, that’s when we litigated,” NMED Secretary James Kenney says in an interview.
The lawsuit has been lumped in with hundreds of other PFAS-related lawsuits. One court in South Carolina now oversees all cases regarding PFAS and the military’s use of the AFFF—more than 750 separate actions.
Even though New Mexico has tried to extricate itself from the multidistrict litigation, hoping to pursue its case against the Air Force without being tied to those hundreds of other cases, a judge has denied that request. And in June, the Biden administration’s Defense Department called New Mexico’s attempts to compel cleanup under state permits “arbitrary and capricious.”
In summary, three years after the Air Force notified New Mexico of the PFAS pollution, there are no clean-up plans in place at Cannon or Holloman, though earlier this year, Cannon announced an on-base pilot project to test the best ways to remove PFAS from water. And even though the military knows when, why and how the contamination happened, it has sued New Mexico to say the state can’t make it clean up the problem.
Meanwhile, state Environment Sec. Kenney says the EPA needs to set federal pollution standards for the toxic substances.
In 2016, the EPA established a lifetime health advisory for two types of PFAS found in firefighting foams, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). But that advisory of 70 parts per trillion isn’t a regulatory limit. That means states like New Mexico don’t have any legal tools to require that polluters like the military clean up PFAS.