NM funds PFAS studies while cleanup languishes and regulations remain years out

Laura Paskus

July 14, 2020

While New Mexico’s lawmakers stare down a $2 billion budget shortfall and a recession, state taxpayers are shelling out $1.1 million to study groundwater contamination from Cannon Air Force Base. That’s in addition to money New Mexico is spending on three pending lawsuits with the U.S. Department of Defense over PFAS contamination at Cannon and also Holloman Air Force Base.

“The [cleanup] progress would be more quick, and we would have more resources devoted to the problem if the responsible party would do the right thing: delineate the contamination and clean it up without us—the regulatory agency—scouring for the resources to do something that the DOD is responsible for doing,” says Stephanie Stringer, the New Mexico Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division Director.

If the military were involved, she says, “There would be a more cohesive and comprehensive effort toward final cleanup.”

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are found in firefighting foams the military started using in the 1970s.

In 2018, monitoring wells near Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases revealed perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination from those foams at levels from hundreds to thousands of times more than a federal lifetime advisory says is safe.

In Clovis, PFAS contamination has also been found in off-base wells, including those that supply water to dairies and the city’s drinking water system.

This family of thousands of chemicals was invented in the 1930s. They are molecules of joined carbon and fluorine atoms, and they’re incredibly difficult to break. Even though they’re toxic—causing health problems ranging from immune disorders to cancer—they’re useful in products like food wrappers, dental floss, ski wax, and even microwave popcorn bags. PFAS can also be found in weather-proof clothing, fire-retardant furniture, and stain-resistant carpet. Not to mention non-stick cookware.

Instead of tackling the problem—and halting the further spread of PFAS in underground water supplies—the Air Force sued New Mexico when the state tried to force a cleanup under the military’s state hazardous waste permit.

In turn, the state sued the Defense Department, asking a federal judge to compel the Air Force to act on, and fund, cleanup at the two New Mexico bases.

To NMED’s knowledge, the military is not working on cleanup at either of the two bases, says Stringer.

In an email to NMPBS, Sen. Tom Udall wrote that he has been “continually disappointed with the Department of Defense’s slow response and handling of the PFAS situation in New Mexico.”

“The state of New Mexico should not have to shoulder these burdens, and the Department of Defense should be taking proactive steps to delineate the plume, start cleanup, and prevent the plume from spreading and making the situation worse,” according to Udall.

The senator pointed to New Mexico’s “rich tradition of military service” and said the Defense Department “owes it to the state and our communities to take immediate action on this serious problem.”

Udall also noted that under the National Defense Authorization Act Congress passed last year, the PFAS Damages Act authorized the Defense Department to provide fresh water and filtration for agricultural purposes and to buy contaminated land at a fair price from private landowners. It also required the military to submit a cleanup plan.

“It is beyond unacceptable that the DOD has missed the deadlines set out in the legislation despite our delegation’s continued requests,” according to Udall. “I am still extremely disappointed with the slow speed and lack of attention to resolving this matter.”

Staff at Cannon Air Force Base did not respond to NMPBS’s requests for information on cleanup. But Denise Ottaviano, chief of media relations at Holloman Air Force Base answered questions via email, writing that the base is committed to “working with regulators and community leaders.”

“We share concerns about potential PFOS/PFOA contamination of drinking water and we are moving aggressively to protect drinking water supplies affected by our former Air Force activities,” she wrote, adding that the Air Force is “planning additional efforts” consistent with federal law to “define the nature and extent of PFAS impact at Holloman.”

“These future efforts will help determine plume size, direction, and any needed remediation,” she added.

Ottaviano wrote that the contaminated groundwater “does not impact drinking water sources for Holloman AFB or the surrounding community.”

Drinking water is not pumped from beneath the base, according to Ottaviano, but rather comes from well fields 12 to 35 miles southeast of the installation. Those wells continue to be tested, she wrote, and have not been contaminated with PFOS or PFOA.

“It is beyond unacceptable that the DOD has missed the deadlines set out in the legislation despite our delegation’s continued requests,” according to Udall. “I am still extremely disappointed with the slow speed and lack of attention to resolving this matter.”

For now, in addition to fighting the Pentagon in court, New Mexico regulators are trying to divine the extent of the groundwater contamination at Cannon, as well as around the city of Clovis.

This spring, the New Mexico State Legislature allocated $1 million for the agency to work on delineating the PFAS plume—to understand where the contamination is and how it is moving underground—and another $100,000 to create and implement a well testing program in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

In the coming months, the New Mexico Environment Department will start determining which wells should be tested and included within the program.

Precautions due to COVID-19 will make that harder than normal, points out Rebecca Roose, NMED’s Water Protection Division Director.

“You can’t just gather people together in a community center and talk it out,” she says. “We’re going to have to figure out the right balance to make sure the opportunities to learn about and participate in the program aren’t limited by people’s broadband access or having a computer at home.”

Trying to clean up and control PFAS in New Mexico—and across the United States—is complicated by the fact that the regulatory framework has not caught up with what scientists understand about the dangerous environmental and health impacts of PFAS, says Roose.

In the early 1980s, for instance, the company DuPont studied PFOA in its pregnant workers. The company learned then that the toxic chemical crossed the placenta—moving from the mother to her developing baby. In the 1990s, another manufacturer, 3M, told regulators a different chemical in the PFAS family had built up in the blood of people who worked in their plants back in the 1960s.

Since then, chemicals in the PFAS family have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney disease, and immune system problems. Exposure has also been linked to high cholesterol, low infant birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption. And cancer.

“There’s enough scientific documentation for us to understand the clear and critical health risks of the class of PFAS chemicals,” says Roose. But federal and state regulatory regimes aren’t up to the challenge of controlling their release into the environment—and drinking water.

The key right now, she says, is getting the science right and moving forward with regulations as quickly as possible.

Not only that, she says, the military needs to accept its responsibilities.

“Fewer of our resources at NMED would be directed to the conflict—and the constant struggle with DOD to have them step up and take responsibility for the contamination at Cannon and Holloman,” Roose says. “We wouldn’t have to be devoting so many resources to litigation and we wouldn’t have to be seeking additional resources from the legislature.”

The state of New Mexico, like states across the nation faced with PFAS contamination from military bases, is hamstrung by a lack of regulations for PFAS.

Without a drinking water standard for the chemicals, states, tribes, and local governments can’t hold polluters responsible for contamination and cleanup.

In 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a PFAS Action Plan, one that would move the agency toward regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the roughly 7,000 chemicals in the PFAS family.

Earlier this year, EPA proposed those regulations for public comment.

At that time, the New Mexico Environment Department submitted comments, supporting regulations for PFOS and PFOA, and requesting that the agency add four additional compounds, consider grouping the family of compounds for regulation instead of considering them on an individual basis, and expedite the rule-making process.

A recent peer-reviewed study suggests that regulating PFAS as a single chemical class would be more efficient and effective than developing regulations for each of the thousands of chemicals. Because the chemicals are all persistent, bioaccumulative, and hazardous, the study’s authors suggest that regulating them as a class would more quickly eliminate their use.

But in May, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler told a senate committee the EPA can’t set a standard within a year, as requested by some Democratic and Republican U.S. senators who pressed the agency to act more quickly.

Even under a best-case scenario, the EPA is likely three to four years away from finalizing the regulatory limits for the two compounds, estimates Roose.

In its comments to the EPA, NMED also implored the agency to set regulations based on the best available science, and not just the health advisory EPA set in 2009 of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water.

The well-documented bioaccumulative effects of the chemicals, according to NMED’s comments, merit standards more closely aligned with those now enacted by some states, including New York, which set drinking water standards for PFAS at 20 parts per trillion.

In response to questions about the plan’s implementation, an EPA spokeswoman emailed text from a news release earlier this year. She also noted that during the public comment period, which ended in June, the agency received more than 11,000 comments on the proposed rule.