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Searchligt New Mexico Magazine

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Images by Don Usner


Progress report: Plume of “forever chemicals” spreads beneath Clovis with no cleanup in sight

By April Reese | July 16, 2019

Photo illustration by Aliya Mood / Searchlight New Mexico

CLOVIS — Last August, dairy farmer Art Schaap received some of the worst news of his life: Both his livelihood and his health were at risk from toxic chemicals in his groundwater. Testing revealed that seven of Schaap’s 13 wells at Highland Dairy were contaminated with toxic substances that had leached into the groundwater from neighboring Cannon Air Force base.

Now, almost one year later, Schaap still can’t sell milk from the dairy, and according to his doctor, his kidney function has deteriorated — a known health effect of exposure to the chemicals.

Residents and local officials worry that others in the path of the underground pollution plume also may be at risk. The Air Force has not initiated cleanup, and the full extent of the contamination is unknown.

As of March, the plume was 4 miles long and migrating southeast, toward an area south of the city, according to maps presented by state environment and health officials at a public meeting in Clovis on April 29. In an email last week, New Mexico Environment Department spokesperson Maddy Hayden confirmed that “previous monitoring indicates the plume may be migrating toward a few of the city's many drinking water production wells.” But the department is not tracking it. NMED Secretary James Kenney says it lacks the funding to conduct regular monitoring.

This map shows the area where testing found PFAS concentrations of 1 part per trillion (or 1 nanogram per liter) or greater in and around Cannon Air Force Base (outlined in red), and the southeasterly movement of the contaminated groundwater. Art Schaap’s Highland Dairy, and his home, are located within this area, next to the southeastern part of the base. The city of Clovis is shown to the northeast. Map courtesy of NMED.

The health and agriculture departments say they are not tracking it either. The Air Force, which conducted the initial water sampling, did not respond to questions about whether it has conducted or will conduct further tests of wells in the path of the plume.

The lack of information about the extent of the contamination, and the lack of action on cleanup, has left many in the community frustrated.

“That seems to be the $64,000 question,” said Chet Spear, a Curry County commissioner who lives near the base, which lies about 7 miles west of the city. “Nobody knows how much larger the plume’s getting and how much more water is being contaminated, because nothing is being done about it.”

For years, Cannon Air Force Base — like at least 100 other military bases around the country — used firefighting foams containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, in training exercises, and they seeped into the groundwater beneath Schaap’s dairy, as well as another dairy and a small housing development called Turquoise Estates. Water in one of Schaap’s wells had concentrations 204 times higher than EPA’s lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. He was forced to dump 15,000 gallons of milk per day and worried that he would have to euthanize 4,000 of his cows.

The fate of those cows is still in limbo. Schaap is awaiting testing results that will determine whether he can sell them for dog food. He installed filters that remove PFAS from his well water, but the dairy remains quarantined and he still can’t sell the milk. Schaap and his family, who live next door in a large brick house with a tidy green lawn, drink bottled water, just in case.

And Highland Dairy, he says, may be closed for good. Even if he were to get a new herd of cows, he worries that the soil would remain contaminated, fouling the forage that feeds his cows. That is exactly what happened to a dairy farmer in Maine, he said.

At this point, Schaap said, the best he can hope for is compensation.

He and other dairy farmers in the area have installed $150,000 water filters at their own expense. “The Air Force has done nothing to help the farmers or the landowners,” he said. 

Schaap wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else. In May, he went to Washington with the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, to lobby Congress for strong PFAS limits.

‘It’s Not Right’

While filters provide the region’s dairy farmers with some protection, the source of the problem — the plume of PFAS pollution underlying the base and private lands southeast of it — remains unaddressed.

In March, after a violation notice failed to compel the Air Force to clean up the contamination, the New Mexico Environment Department filed suit. The contamination “created an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas wrote in the lawsuit.

The Air Force contends that NMED lacks the authority to force federal action.

Schaap is frustrated by what he and other Clovis residents see as an abdication of responsibility by the Air Force. “They’re just telling the Environment Department to go pound sand,” said Schaap, who recently sued the Air Force for damages. “To me it’s not right, because we still have the contamination."

A major barrier to swift cleanup is the lack of legally enforceable PFAS limits. While EPA, the Air Force and manufacturers have known about the potential risks of PFAS for decades, the agency has not established a maximum contaminant level in drinking water for any of them — only a “lifetime health advisory” of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common and best-studied substances within the PFAS family of chemicals.

The agency is now considering an enforceable federal threshold. Agency officials have said they will decide whether to set such a limit by the end of the year. If it proceeds, the rule-making process would likely take at least another one to two years.

To try to speed up the federal government's response to the PFAS crisis, which affects states around the country, Sen. Tom Udall (D), Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) and other lawmakers have attached language to a must-pass defense-spending bill that would require EPA to set an enforceable PFAS standard and compel the Air Force to initiate cleanup. But last Tuesday, July 9, President Trump threatened to veto the bill if it included the PFAS amendments. On a conference call with Schaap and reporters the next day, an irate Udall took both the administration and the Air Force to task.

“I find it appalling, their behavior,” Udall said of the Air Force. “I expect them to do a lot better by their neighbors.”

While residents and local officials place much of the blame for the slow response on the Air Force and EPA, they are also frustrated by what they see as an inadequate response by the state.

“Contamination continues more and more every day,” said Spear, in an interview just after the April 29 meeting in Clovis. “Let’s get it fixed. Not litigate this and wait. Litigation takes years.”

Clovis cannot afford to lose any of its precious water supply, he added, as he drove through Turquoise Estates, a development of mobile homes and modest houses near the base where PFAS was detected in one well and in the development's water system. Some homes south of town have had to haul water because their wells have run dry.

Rebecca Stenholm, director of public and government affairs for Epcor, which supplies water to the Clovis area (but not Turquoise Estates, which has its own system), said the company is closely monitoring its wells and that no PFAS has been detected. “None of them are in that affected area, but we are watching this very carefully,” she said. “We have stepped up the level of sampling and monitoring we are doing."

How much is too much?

PFAS chemicals, first created in the 1940s by 3M, are found in hundreds of products. Almost everyone has them in their bloodstream, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are thousands of PFAS compounds, which are used in non-stick cookware, water-repellant clothing, fast food wrappers, stain resistant sprays, firefighting foam and many other products. Scientific studies suggest the compounds — known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and the body — may cause cancer, raise cholesterol levels and suppress the immune system, though more research is needed to fully understand how they affect the body.

No one knows exactly how much PFAS in drinking water is safe. Some research suggests that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), two of the compounds most prevalent in the Clovis plume, are a risk to human health at just 1 part per trillion (ppt).

The Air Force’s initial tests for PFAS contamination at Cannon, reported to NMED in October 2018, found total PFAS concentrations in wells on the base of between 2.3 and 56,504 ppt. Additional sampling of off-base wells that fall showed levels between 7 and 30,126 ppt.

Further testing by NMED in March of this year found several PFAS chemicals in water samples taken from Cannon Air Force base and Turquoise Estates. None of the levels exceeded the federal health advisory, NMED noted. But EPA’s advisory is only for PFOA and PFOS — two of the most well-studied PFAS chemicals — not PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonate) and some of the other chemicals found in the Turquoise Estate samples and some of the new Cannon samples.

Contamination has also been detected at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

In the absence of a legally enforceable federal limit, NMED classified PFAS as hazardous waste and tried to get the Air Force to act by including cleanup requirements in the Air Force’s hazardous waste permit for Cannon Air Force base.

The military countered that the state exceeded its authority in deeming the chemicals hazardous and therefore could not mandate cleanup.

It also has not complied with NMED’s violation notice for PFAS contamination at Holloman Air Force base, saying that the groundwater there is too salty to be used for drinking water or agriculture and therefore is not protected by state water quality rules.

In response to the lack of federal regulation, many states are adopting their own PFAS standards, and NMED Secretary James Kenney said New Mexico may follow suit. Several states have moved to set limits of 35 ppt or lower, based on studies that suggest that PFAS can be harmful well below EPA’s health advisory.

“I’ve already asked other states if we can be privy to their scientific process, so we can figure out what our drinking water standard would be,” he said.