Will EPA, Defense Department act on PFAS?

Laura Paskus

May 5, 2021

Earlier this year, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, spoke with NMPBS about PFAS contamination. He noted some optimism for changes in how the federal government handles regulation of those toxic chemicals, which have polluted water at hundreds of military bases nationwide, including Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases in New Mexico.

“I think the biggest development we've had on PFAS is that, for too long, there were many agencies, including the Department of Defense, that were able to sort of dodge responsibility; in part because the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] had not taken its job seriously,” Heinrich said. “And to have an EPA now that is working to set a standard, really, you know, takes away one of the easiest ways that some of these agencies were able to dodge responsibility.”

Here in New Mexico, state regulators have been unable to compel the military to clean up PFAS contamination at both Cannon and Holloman. Although the EPA set a lifetime health advisory for two of the thousands of types of PFAS, there is no enforceable federal regulatory limit on the toxic substances, even in drinking water.

After that conversation with Heinrich, in late April EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced creation of a new EPA Council on PFAS.

According to an EPA press release, the agency "has also taken action to begin to develop a national primary drinking water regulation, to collect new data critically needed to improve EPA's understanding of 29 PFAS, and to solicit data on the presence and treatment of PFAS in wastewater discharges.”

Last month, President Biden put $75 million in his 2022 budget request to accelerate PFAS studies. That’s a ten-million-dollar bump over last fiscal year. As reporter Pat Rizzuto writes in Bloomberg Law, reaction to the president’s call for more studies is mixed.

Manufacturers, academics, and agencies have conducted studies of how PFAS affects humans and the environment since at least the 1980s. And some, including Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Maine-based Defend Our Health, say it’s time to take action on the toxic chemicals. As reported by Rizzuto: “We’re well past the time of needing more research in order to declare PFAS as a class hazardous substances or to establish a truly health protective [maximum contaminant level] for drinking water,” he said.

Cannon officials: ‘We do not want to rush the work plan’

Earlier this year, NMPBS also spoke with Christipher Gierke, remedial project manager with the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center and Christopher Segura, installation support section chief. In 2018, the military notified state officials and some residents that firefighting foams had contaminated groundwater with PFAS at Cannon Air Force Base.

According to Gierke, Cannon has a contract in the works for “remedial investigation” of the contaminated plume. And, he estimated, groundwater testing will begin in September.

"We do not want to rush the work plan but at the same time we are working to get it done as quickly as possible,” he said. “We do want to utilize taxpayers' dollars in the most efficient manner possible so that way when we go out there and do this work, we are going to get a good picture of what this plume is and what that migration is.”

During a public meeting earlier this year about the contamination, some residents asked why there isn’t a cleanup plan in place, and why testing won’t begin until later this year.


PFAS news from around the U.S. 

Meanwhile, New Mexico isn’t alone in grappling with its PFAS problems:

The Guardian has a story about how the U.S. chemical industry lobbied and donated money to “congressional allies” in order to defeat stronger PFAS regulation. From the story by Tom Perkins:

A Guardian analysis of campaign finance records found spending on PFAS issues jumped as lawmakers introduced over 100 new pieces of legislation in 2019 and 2020, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed strong new restrictions. Observers say the results are clear: industry’s congressional allies defeated nearly all PFAS legislation while the Trump EPA killed, watered down or [slow-walked] new rules that never went into effect.

Spending is expected to remain high this legislative cycle as the Biden EPA has already advanced industry-opposed restrictions and Democrats have promised to re-introduce failed legislation and billions in revenue are at stake. Chemours, one top PFAS manufacturer, in fiscal year 2020 reported about $5bn in earnings, of which fluorinated chemicals represented about $2.2bn.

• Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey sent a letter to Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, asking for action on cleanup of contaminated groundwater from Davis Monthan Air Force Base. The water utility in Tucson, according to a KVOA-TV story, has already had to shut down 18 wells because of PFAS contamination.

Garrett Ellison reports how the U.S. Air Force is refusing to comply with new state rules in Michigan that limit how much PFAS can be released into the environment. The story illustrates the challenges states and communities face—nationwide—when squaring off against the Defense Department. Without a federal regulatory limit set by the EPA, some states have tried to establish their own regulations on PFAS. Meanwhile, military officials exploit the lack of clarity from the federal government, while simultaneously downplaying the contamination.

From Ellison’s story: “In a call with reporters, Air Force officials said federal law prohibits it from complying with those rules, but they argued that’s it's a moot point anyhow because the system will meet state thresholds even if it’s not designed to do so.”

Also in Michigan, residents have reached a settlement with Georgia-Pacific over contaminated drinking water wells in Cooper Township.

• People living in Fairfield, Maine are increasingly worried about how PFAS contamination is affecting their health and property values.

• The city of Dayton, Ohio has sued Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Defense, seeking damages of up to $300 million due to PFAS contamination. From the Dayton Daily News story:

“The city absolutely did not want to file this lawsuit,” Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said in a statement Monday evening. “We’ve invested more than four years trying to get (Wright-Patt) and the DoD to agree to take steps to mitigate ongoing contamination coming from the base into the city’s Mad River Wellfield and the aquifer that supplies those wells.”

If you’ve been affected by PFAS contamination in your community here in New Mexico, call our tip line at (505) 433-7242. To read more coverage of PFAS in New Mexico visit “Groundwater War: New Mexico’s Toxic Threat,” which includes a timeline of events and studies on PFAS.