Category Archives: Environment

Pentagon IDs four more NM sites at risk of PFAS contamination

Rio Rancho Armory

The Army National Guard Armory in Rio Rancho is among four New Mexico military installations that the Pentagon is investigating for PFAS releases. | Photo: Laura Paskus

By Laura Paskus

The Pentagon has identified four more military sites in New Mexico that could be contaminating local waters with PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

On Friday, March 13, just as federal and state agencies ramped up emergency efforts to address the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report summarizing its progress on PFAS issues through the end of last September. 

According to its updated list, the military will assess whether activities at the Army National Guard armories in Rio Rancho and Roswell, the Army Aviation Support Facility in Santa Fe, and White Sands Missile Range have polluted groundwater with PFAS. The toxic compounds do not biodegrade, and have been linked to cancer and many other health problems.

Nationwide, the updated list of military sites under investigation swelled from 450 military locations to 651. The military does not appear to have notified states, including New Mexico, prior to making the list public. 

A map of military sites investigated for PFAS contamination
As of the end of September, the Defense Department is studying possible PFAS releases at 651 military installations nationwide. | Courtesy: U.S. Department of Defense

According to the report from the Defense Department’s PFAS Task Force, the military’s earlier investigations focused on contamination from aqueous film forming foams, which the military used for firefighting and training from the 1970s until just a few years ago.

The updated progress report notes that the task force’s expanded investigations now also focus on “installations where PFAS may have been used or released.” 

The report does not include details about specific activities that might have exposed people or the environment to PFAS. Defense Department spokesman Chuck Pritchard could not be reached for additional information before publication. 

PFAS are a class of thousands of toxic, human-made chemicals that have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney disease, and immune system problems. 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.

Chemicals within the PFAS family are found not only in firefighting foams, but in common household items, like weather-proof clothing, stain-resistant carpet, and nonstick cookware. The chemicals can cross the placental barrier and be passed from mother to child during breastfeeding. They also bioaccumulate, moving up the food chain. 

Already, New Mexico is grappling with groundwater contamination from two Air Force bases in the state. 

In 2018, the Air Force notified the New Mexico Environment Department that monitoring wells at Cannon Air Force Base had PFAS concentrations more than 370 times what federal regulators consider safe for a lifetime of exposure. The toxic chemicals also tainted nearby private drinking wells. Air Force testing also revealed levels of PFAS up to 1,294,000 parts per trillion—more than 27,000 times the lifetime advisory level—in waters below Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

In 2017, the Air Force released its site inspection for Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, which concluded that PFAS were either not detected or were present in levels below the EPA’s lifetime health advisory.

Earlier this year, the water utility EPCOR, which serves water to customers in Clovis, revealed that it had detected PFAS in some of its drinking water wells. Some of those tests showed results as early as last summer. The company, which has been voluntarily testing its wells in the absence of a governing federal regulation, says the delay in reporting the contamination was due to the time involved in testing and retesting affected wells and pumping stations.

Since the New Mexico Environment Department issued notices of violation to the Air Force over contamination from the two bases, the state and the military have been locked in litigation over the state’s authority to compel the Air Force to clean up the groundwater contamination.

The new list came as a surprise to state officials. 

“To our knowledge, the DOD did not reach out beforehand to inform us that they are expanding their scope to include facilities that had a lesser likelihood of having used PFAS,” said NMED spokeswoman Maddy Hayden. “They also have not informed NMED of when these site inspection reports will be completed or provided.”

Hayden added, “Addressing PFAS contamination in New Mexico communities remains a top priority of the New Mexico Environment Department.” 

Storage containers at the Rio Rancho National Guard Armory
The Army National Guard Armory in Rio Rancho lies west of the Rio Grande Valley, surrounded by open spaces and encroaching housing developments. | Photo: Laura Paskus

The recent Defense Department report also notes that the funding for PFAS cleanup included as part of the newly-passed National Defense Authorization Act is inadequate. 

According to the report, aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicles will need to be retrofitted entirely—meaning that each vehicle component that came into contact with the firefighting foams will need to be replaced—at a cost of almost $200,000 per vehicle. That alone, according to the report, adds $600 million to earlier cleanup estimates.  

Alternately, replacing the Defense Department’s current fleet of about 3,000 contaminated vehicles will cost $4 to $6 billion—and take 18 years. 

The report also notes that as part of the Defense Authorization Act, the Defense Department has committed $30 million to study PFAS exposure in eight communities near former and current military installations. Those studies are happening in West Virginia, Colorado, Alaska, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, Washington, and Delaware. The military is also “developing a framework” to annually test the blood of military firefighters for PFAS levels.

Clovis city water tests find toxic ‘forever chemicals’ linked to Cannon Air Force Base

Firefighters containing toxic chemicals

Firefighting foams used for decades at Cannon Air Force Base contained toxic chemicals. (Jan. 2019 U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

UPDATE: State Grapples With Nonexistent PFAS Limits As Utility Says Positive Tests Date To 2019

By Laura Paskus

New tests by Clovis’ water utility show toxic chemicals associated with groundwater contamination from Cannon Air Force Base have been found in the city’s water supply.

According to a letter sent to customers of the utility EPCOR late this week, trace amounts of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances were found in about 10 percent of the company’s 82 intake wells. In the letter, Clovis operations supervisor Mark Huerta wrote that EPCOR detected the chemicals at levels between four and seven parts per trillion. 

Saturday, EPCOR posted an undated copy of the letter on its website, which continued to feature posts from 2018 with headlines such as “Cannon Air Force Base Plume and Why it Doesn’t Affect your Water.” 

PFAS are a class of thousands of toxic, human-made chemicals. They are considered “emerging” contaminants because their links to cancer, immunological problems, and other health impacts are in the early stages of study. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a regulatory threshold for the chemicals, though it has issued a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. Without a federal regulatory limit, however, states like New Mexico can’t mandate water quality controls over PFAS.

In August 2018, the Air Force notified the New Mexico Environment Department that monitoring wells at Cannon Air Force Base had PFAS concentrations more than 370 times what federal regulators consider safe for a lifetime of exposure. Nearby private drinking wells were also tainted. Air Force testing also revealed levels of PFAS up to 1,294,000 parts per trillion—more than 27,000 times the advisory level—in waters below Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

In his letter, EPCOR’s Huerta wrote, “None of the sample results came close to EPA’s health-based recommended advisory level. And none of the water EPCOR supplies to you comes from the area surrounding the Cannon plume…”

EPCOR could not be reached Saturday through its local and toll-free phone numbers.

Cannon Air Force PFAS Clovis
EPCOR’s Clovis web page

In the 2018 web post—as the Air Force revealed the extent of the PFAS contamination from Cannon—EPCOR reassured customers that the plume from the base just west of Clovis did not affect the city’s water supply. At that time, studies focused on water below the base itself, in addition to private wells within a four-mile radius of its boundary.

The presence of the toxic chemicals in the municipal water supply for Clovis, however, raises questions about how the plume might be moving underground, or if other above-ground uses could be spreading contaminated water.

In the letter to customers, Huerta wrote that “there is no health concern,” and added that the wells that sampled positive for PFAS have been taken out of service. 

The Canada-based EPCOR has water, wastewater, and electrical and natural gas facilities in four Canadian provinces, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. In the Clovis area, it supplies water to about 16,000 households and businesses.

First developed in the mid-20th century, PFAS are manufactured and used worldwide, including in firefighting foams. The Air Force used those foams for decades, contaminating the groundwater beneath Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases, as well as more than 100 federal government bases nationwide. 

Among the most-studied PFAS chemicals are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Health impacts may include problems with the reproductive and developmental systems, liver and kidneys, and immune system, as well as high cholesterol, low infant birth weights, cancer (for PFOA) and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS), according to federal regulators.

The Air Force and the New Mexico Environment Department have filed suits and countersuits over the PFAS contamination and its cleanup.

In early 2019, the Air Force sued the state, challenging New Mexico’s attempt to force the military to address the PFAS contamination under the hazardous waste permit issued by NMED. In March 2019, New Mexico filed its own complaint against the Air Force, asking a federal District Court judge to order the military to act on and fund cleanup at Cannon and Holloman.

On Feb. 14, New Mexico In Focus will feature an interview with New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney about PFAS contamination, including the latest revelations by EPCOR. In August 2019, environmental correspondent Laura Paskus interviewed Kenney about the state’s battle with the Air Force over PFAS.

If you’ve been affected by PFAS contamination in your community, call our tip line at (505) 433-7242.