U.S. Military Leaves New Mexico in the Dark on PFAS—Again

Laura Paskus

November 10, 2020

FORT WINGATE—Between the red rock cliffs of the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Mountains to the south, the remains of Fort Wingate lope up rolling hills along Interstate 40 in western New Mexico. Even from the highway, it’s easy to spy the underground magazines—which the U.S. military built to hold munitions in the 1940s and called “igloos”—their roofs carpeted with sand, gravel and grasses 

For decades, there were secrets locked away within those magazines. Now, there might be more secrets lurking in the waters below Fort Wingate—where the military might have left behind PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Those are toxic, human-made chemicals found in firefighting foams used by the military from the 1970s until just a few years ago. 

Established in the 19th century, the 15,000-acre depot was used throughout the 1900s to store, ship, inspect, and dispose of conventional munitions—things like bombs, rockets, and missiles. Its mission ended in 1993, though the Missile Defense Agency still uses about 6,000 acres for launching target rockets to White Sands Missile Range.  

Activities at Fort Wingate caused “significant damage” to groundwater and wildlife habitat, says Maggie Hart Stebbins, New Mexico’s Natural Resources Trustee.  

Since the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been cleaning up tracts of land and plans to return much of the closed depot to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which would then transfer the lands to the Pueblo of Zuni and the Navajo Nation. 

The pending consent decree with the U.S. Department of Defense would also compensate the two tribal governments for natural resource “injuries, says Hart Stebbinswho is optimistic that the state, the military, and the two tribes will reach a settlement by the end of 2020.  

According to the environmental cleanup documents for Fort Wingate, explosives, perchlorates and nitrates contaminated groundwater in the northern section of the property. In other areassoils and buildings are contaminated with dangerous and cancer-causing chemicals like PCB’s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, white phosphorus, and metals like lead. There is also pollution from munitions and explosives and contaminants like semi-volatile organic compoundsvolatile organic compounds, and pesticides. 

One pollutant not listed is PFAS.  

But a document dated June 30, 2020 shows that the Pentagon added Fort Wingate to the growing list of military sites possibly contaminated with PFASThat family of chemicals has a litany of health impacts. They also don’t biodegrade, instead persisting in the environment and in the bodies of people and animals, building up to a lifetime exposure limit that some scientists say is artificially high.  

Months later, that was news to New Mexico officials. And possible PFAS contamination is not a part of the current settlement negotiations 

“The consent decree that is under consideration now and in the process of being finalized really deals with the other injuries that have already been identified and investigated,” says Hart Stebbins. But, she says, if there is indeed PFAS at the site, parties could pursue additional damages 

PFAS have contaminated the water below military bases worldwide—including more than 700 in the United States.  

And Fort Wingate isn’t the only New Mexico military installation on that list. 

Here in New Mexico, the state has already spent two years trying to get the Air Force to map and clean up PFAS contamination in the groundwater below Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases.  

In addition to Fort Wingate, in 2019the Pentagon added four other New Mexico sites tan updated list of installations where PFAS from firefighting foams may have polluted nearby waters. These include the Army National Guard armories in Rio Rancho and Roswell, the Army Aviation Support Facility in Santa Fe, and White Sands Missile Range. 

When NMPBS inquired about the status of investigations at those sites, a Pentagon official referred us to local contacts, who did not answer our questions  

From the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), we learned that at White Sands Missile Range, the Army has completed a preliminary assessment and started a site investigation.  

According to NMED, “the Army is waiting for a schedule from the contractor on completion date,” and it will provide the state with the report once it’s finalized. 

As for the three Army National Guard sites, the state says the Army is beginning site investigations after confirming PFAS-containing firefighting foams were stored onsite at each of the three sites.  

Decades’ worth of studies tie PFAS to reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney disease, and immune system problems. Exposure is also linked to high cholesterol, low infant birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption, and cancer.   

According to NMED, the contract for those three studies was scheduled to be awarded in August 2020—and the military expects the studies will be done in 2022. 

The department is “very concerned” about how slowly the U.S. Department of Defense is moving on studies at the other four sitesaccording to department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden.  

“NMED acknowledges that groundwater contamination assessments and clean-ups are complex processes that can require the drilling of numerous monitoring wells and other technical activities that take significant amounts of time to complete in a quality manner,” according to an email from Hayden. “But the Department of Defense must move more expeditiously to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico because of the imminent danger this contamination presents to public health and safety.” 

That’s why, she adds, the state sued the Department of Defense to get a judge to compel the military to clean up PFAS contamination from Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases. 

That lawsuit is still pending. So is the lawsuit the military filed against New Mexico, challenging the state’s authority.  

In the absence of federal action, the New Mexico Legislature allocated $1 million to study where PFAS has spread from the two bases and another $100,000 to create and implement a well testing program in Curry and Roosevelt counties near Cannon Air Force Base.  

Last month, NMED released a request for proposals to investigate PFAS contamination from the two Air Force bases. Hayden says the state plans to have that contract in place by the end of the year, so work can begin in early 2021.  

The history of Fort Wingate is a long one. And a complicated one.  

The United States government acquired the lands—upon which the Navajo and Zuni people were living—through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  

The U.S. established an initial military post, Fort Lyon, at the site in 1861, abandoning it to build Fort Wingate near San Rafael in 1862. Six years later, that location was abandoned, and the “new” Fort Wingate established back at the original location.  

By the end of World War I, what was then called the War Department was storing munitions there. Throughout the 20th century, the fort was used to store and ship weapons, ammunitions, and explosives—including to the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Site—as well as to disassemble obsolete munitions. In the 1960s, the Army started using sections of the installation to test and launch ballistic missiles.  

Across the property, there are more than 750 archaeological and sacred sites—including burial sites, creation story locations, and mourning sites—as well as traditional Native American trails and an “exceedingly significant” Pueblo III Chacoan settlement.” That’s how archaeologists describe the period from roughly AD 1150-1350 and association with the communities and architecture of Chaco Canyon. 

There’s even more to the site’s history, tucked within government reports, including those related to the cleanup and closure: U.S. Army Col. Kit Carson and his four companies of volunteers “controlled” the Navajo from the fort. And when the U.S. government “returned” thousands of Navajo men, women, and children from their imprisonment at Fort Sumner on Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico, they were temporarily settled at the fort. Troops at Fort Wingate also participated in The Apache Wars and “reined in” Hopis. There was also an Indian school—the remains of which still loom at the edge of the town of Fort Wingate.  

Established in 1925, the school was named for Charles Burke, commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1921 to 1929, who historian John Gram describes as “an assimilationist of the old pattern,” who “launched an all-out assault on Native religion.” Four years before the school was established, according to Gram’s book, Education at the Edge of Empire: Negotiating Pueblo Identity in New Mexico’s Indian Boarding Schools, Burke “issued instructions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to strongly discourage ceremonial dancing; two years later he released further instructions that virtually banned the practice.”  

The lack of transparency and reluctance or refusal to clean up pollution on the part of the military isn’t limited to PFAS. The military has a long legacy in New Mexico—and that legacy includes persistent public health and environmental impacts.  

“I think we freely recognize the economic benefits of having these military installations in the state of New Mexico, but we also have to make sure that we also recognize the long-term harm that that they sometimes create,” says Hart Stebbins, who during her time as Bernalillo County commissioner called for transparency from the Air Force regarding the decades old jet fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base which polluted waters below Albuquerque.   

The Kirtland cleanup began in 2015, but recently, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority sent letters to the Air Force and NMED, asking the two agencies to address four key areas of concernto include stakeholders on key correspondence related to the cleanup, to resume regular meetings of the Technical Working Group (which has not convened in at least two years), to eliminate data gaps regarding the contaminated plume and its spread, and to make sure that information is accessible to the public.   

Hart Stebbins says she would like to see increased transparency and community engagement.

“Where the community, whether it's the Water Utility Authority or independent entities, can review the data from the jet fuel spill and come to a conclusion about whether it's going well, or whether there's more work that needs to be done,” she says. “That free flow of information is really vital to that process.” 

It's an issue across New Mexico. 

“We cannot trade a short-term benefit for a long-term risk, a long-term harm,” she says, pointing out that federal facilities like Los Alamos National Laboratory have caused significant contamination—contamination that dates back eight decades and will decades more to clean.   

Military installations can offer job creation, innovation, and community stability, she says. But they also need to be responsible to communities, especially since taxpayers foot the bill for all their activities, including pollution cleanup.  

“It's important for the military installations in New Mexico to be good neighbors,” Hart Stebbins says. “And when some kind of error that is made, they need to own up to it and be responsible to the community where they've made their home.”