The military polluted New Mexico waters and soils with PFAS and is fighting against cleanup of the “forever problem”
August 4, 2021
In the early to mid-1990s, Air Force firefighter Kevin Ferrara was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico. It was his first deployment after training at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois.
The life of an Air Force firefighter is similar to a municipal firefighter, he says. They ignite jet fuel in training pits and extinguish the fires. Sometimes, an airplane crashes. And every day, firefighters check their equipment, testing trucks and spraying foam, making sure no gremlins gum things up in an emergency.
“There were some incidents where we sprayed foam out for fire prevention visits, and young kids played in it because they thought it was cool, it looked like snow,” he says. Now retired, Ferrara says he unquestioningly believed leadership—during his training and deployments—when they compared that firefighting foam to “soap and water.”
Today, we know the 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.
“We never imagined that foam was toxic,” Ferrara says today from his home in Pennsylvania, where he is an outspoken critic of the military’s response to the pollution. “We were just assuming those who told us these things knew what they were talking about.”
Over the years, 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.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a family of thousands of human-made chemicals, exposure to which has been linked to myriad health problems. Two types of PFAS in particular had been found in AFFF, which the US military had been using since the late 1970s.
The carbon-fluorine bonds unique to human-made PFAS are hard to break. That makes them great for all sorts of products like non-stick cookware, stain-proof fabric, dental floss and wrappers for greasy foods like pizza and hamburgers—and incredibly useful for firefighting foams needed to extinguish super-hot, petroleum-based fires.
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.
States need the federal government to treat PFAS as toxic chemicals, Kenney says. “We need a comprehensive way to tackle PFAS,” says Kenney, who recently testified in a congressional hearing, calling for the EPA to set a national drinking water standard and for the federal government to immediately list PFAS as hazardous waste under federal law.
“[That way], we have a way to manage PFAS from the time it comes into the state to the time it’s disposed of and everything in between, so we’re not just finding it haphazardly and then having to deal with the public health impacts that way,” he says.
Without federal regulations and legal guidelines, the military won’t fall in line with what states like New Mexico are asking, in terms of cleanup—or even map where the pollution is and how it’s moving. Not only did the Pentagon sue New Mexico for mandating cleanup, New Mexico taxpayers are footing the bill for studies to see where the contamination from Cannon and Holloman has spread.
“I would hope that under the current federal administration, under all the movement by the US Environmental Protection Agency to acknowledge the risk of PFAS, that that message gets to the Department of Defense as well as the Department of Justice and they understand that New Mexicans should not have to fight to clean up contaminated groundwater,” Kenney says. “They are on the wrong side of this issue.”
For the four years that Ferrara was stationed at Cannon, he and his fellow firefighters sprayed foam every day, he says—thousands of gallons of it. Before he arrived, and after he left, military firefighters practiced those same exercises every day.
The toxic chemicals in that foam seeped into the soil and into the groundwater. People living around the base drank that water, and so did Art Schaap’s cows at Highland Dairy.
Since the Air Force told him his water was contaminated in 2018, Schaap says he has been pumping and dumping the milk. He’s also suing the military, and hoping the US Department of Agriculture will figure out a way to buy his cows.
Earlier this year, Schaap said his biggest problem is figuring out what to do with the contaminated carcasses. He had a herd of 4,000 dairy cows—and said about 1,000 have died from old age. Typically, dairy farmers can sell their aging cows to packing plants and beef operations. “I even contacted the people who buy dead animals and they didn’t want them in their recipes either,” he said. “They make dog food out of those, they recycle dead animals…and they didn’t want them.”
Schaap bought the land for his dairy, just on the edge of the base, in 1992—the same time Ferrara was stationed at Cannon.
“For four years, I unknowingly contributed to all of that, and I do feel guilty, and I’m certain other firefighters that were there with me would share in this,” Ferrara says. “Had we known then what we know today, there is no way we would deliberately spray AFFF firefighting foam into the soil and let it contaminate.”
PFAS have been nicknamed “forever” chemicals because they don’t go away. We started making them in the 1930s. And they’re here to stay.
The toxic substances don’t break down easily. Their carbon-fluorine bonds, which make them so effective for household and industrial products, also mean that in the environment, water won’t break them down. Nor will light or even microbes. Bury them and they’ll find their way into soil and water. Burn them and they’ll reenter the hydrological cycle via rain and snow.
PFAS love to move. They move in water and in our bodies. They cross the placental barrier and mothers pass them to their children when breastfeeding. PFAS also bioaccumulate, moving up the food chain. They can migrate into human bodies through milk from cows that drank contaminated water, for example, or fish or a duck harvested from waters containing PFAS.
Chemicals within the PFAS family are found not only in firefighting foams—which contaminated Cannon and Holloman—but also in common household items. Pollution in Wisconsin, Michigan, New Jersey, California and North Carolina has been tied to the manufacture of these chemicals by companies like Tyco Fire Products, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls; 3M, DuPont, DECRA Roofing Systems and Chemours.
These chemicals are also sometimes called “emerging” toxins. That’s because regulations are still emerging—not because we don’t know they cause health problems.
Studies dating back to the late 1960s show links between PFAS contamination and liver and kidney disease as well as health problems related to reproduction, development and immune systems. Exposure to PFAS has also been tied to high cholesterol, low infant birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption and cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and kidney, testicular, prostate and ovarian cancers.
And just in case you’re breathing a sigh of relief because you don’t drink water from below one of the hundreds of US Air Force bases contaminating water, a recent study showed that PFAS are present in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans.
Again, that’s because these toxic substances love to move.
Here in New Mexico, we know they’re in the groundwater below Cannon and Holloman. They were found in about 10% of the wells that supply drinking water to Clovis and in Holloman Lakes, where migratory birds stop during their travels. PFAS are in soil and sediment samples at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Technical Area 15 and within waters and sludge of the LANL Wastewater Treatment Plant. They’re found in the Gila River where it gushes (or trickles, depending on the time of year) out of the nation’s first officially designated wilderness area.
As New Mexico PBS reported in January, when the state and the US Geological Survey tested for PFAS around the state, the highest levels—153.2 parts per trillion of various PFAS combined—were found in the waters of the Rio Grande at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque’s South Valley. The Gila’s numbers came in second, at 52.6 parts per trillion.
The study also found PFAS in the Rio Puerco near Bernardo (30.2 ppt), the Rio Grande at El Paso (22.0 and 10.4 ppt), the Canadian River near Sanchez (15.9 ppt), the Rio Grande floodway at San Marcial (10.2 ppt), the Canadian below Conchas Dam (6.9 ppt), the Pecos River near Artesia (4.9 ppt), the Animas River in Farmington (3.1 ppt), the Rio Grande at Alameda (2.8 and 2.2 ppt), the San Juan River near Archuleta (2.7 ppt), the Rio Grande above the Buckman Diversion near Santa Fe (2.3 ppt), the Pecos River near Red Bluff (2.0 ppt), and the San Juan River near Fruitland (2.0 ppt).
Exposure to PFAS isn’t just a problem for firefighters like Ferrara or people like Schaap who live near a polluting base. These persistent, movement-loving toxic substances are a reminder that we can’t always control the consequences of our ingenuity. PFAS are found in thousands of products we regularly use. And they will be found in the environment forever—long after we’ve forgotten about the need for pizza boxes, waterproof boots, and petroleum-extinguishing firefighting foams.
Meanwhile, Art Schaap is still waiting. Waiting to hear if the federal government will buy his contaminated cows and carcasses. Waiting to see what happens with his lawsuit against the military and the manufacturers of the AFFF that contaminated the water he, his family, his cows, and his employees drank. And even though state officials and all but one member of the congressional delegation have been vocal in their support for action on PFAS, he’s also waiting for local officials to act.
“The local county guys and the city folks, they got their hands tied because Cannon Air Force Base is very big for our community. They’re huge, you know, they bring a lot of folks here, a lot of economic development,” Schaap says. “And I think the county and the city are worried that Cannon Air Force Base could leave if they put too much pressure on them.”
Schaap is also waiting to see if anyone will stop the pollution before it spreads even further.
“There’s other farms down the plume. There’s other big businesses. One of the largest cheese plants in the United States is down the plume. You’ve got the community’s water supply down the plume. You got another community, Portales’ water supply down the plume,” he says. “I mean it just doesn’t end. But we need to stop it here before it gets there so people are not affected.”
He wishes the Defense Department would sit down with him and others to talk about how to fix the problem. “They know they’re guilty,” he says. “They don’t want to be at fault. But they are at fault. There’s nowhere else in this area that PFAS could have gotten into the ground.”
And for his part, Ferrara wishes the military would accept responsibility.
“If the military would just come out and apologize and say, ‘We’re sorry for what happened but we’re going to work on this, we’re going to move forward,’ that would be a great start,” he says. “But they’re not doing it. It seems like that fence line that divides the military base and the community—even though it’s probably like an eight-foot-high fence, it might as well be a thousand-foot-high fence because it almost seems like that’s the barrier.”
He continues, “Whatever happens on base, that’s the military’s issue and they don’t believe anything outside that fence is their concern.”
Where are US military PFAS lurking?
In 2007, the military started replacing PFOS-based AFFF at its European bases after the European Union banned the manufacture and use of certain products containing PFOS. Almost ten years later, the Air Force started replacing PFOS-based AFFF at US installations with PHOS-CHEK 3%, a new formula that does contain “trace amounts” of PFOA.
Initially, the Pentagon had a list of about 100 bases that might have polluted water with PFAS. By now, that list has grown to almost 800.
Today, the military is supposed to be investigating whether PFAS were stored at:
- Fort Wingate
- Army National Guard armories in Rio Rancho and Roswell
- Army Aviation Support Facility in Santa Fe
- White Sands Missile Range
(Those five facilities landed on a Pentagon list of places that are possibly contaminating local waters with PFAS—a fact not shared with tribes and New Mexico state officials when they were negotiating a settlement agreement to return some of the now-closed Fort Wingate to the US Department of the Interior, which would then transfer the lands to the Pueblo of Zuni and the Navajo Nation.)
“The safety and well-being of our Airmen is a top priority, and we strive to find solutions and reduce risk wherever possible,” wrote Air Force spokesman Mark Kinkade. The Air Force used AFFF in “accordance with manufacturer instructions and consistent with known occupational risks at the time.” And, the Air Force has acted in accordance with the EPA’s lifetime health advisory, replaced AFFF to reduce exposure to PFOS and PFOA, and “implemented strict training and use guidelines for use of the new foam by our firefighters and emergency personnel.”