ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexico on Tuesday sued the U.S. Air Force over groundwater contamination at two bases, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.
The contamination – linked to a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – was detected last year in groundwater on and near Cannon and Holloman air bases.
Similar contamination has been found at dozens of military sites across the nation, and growing evidence that exposure can be dangerous has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider setting a maximum level for the chemicals in drinking water nationwide. Currently only non-enforceable drinking water health advisories are in place.
In 2017, testing confirmed contamination from the same chemicals in the residential wells near Fairchild Air Force Base, prompting an advisory to Airway Heights residents not to drink tap water. In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced eight military installations would undergo federal testing for human exposure to the toxic substances, including Fairchild.
New Mexico regulators first issued a notice of violation to the Air Force last year for failing to properly address the contamination at the base near Clovis. They followed up earlier this year on Holloman, saying that base had violated its state permit and had yet to respond to concerns about the pollution near Alamogordo.
The state considers the contamination “an immediate and substantial danger” to surrounding communities.
“In the absence of cooperation by the Air Force, the New Mexico Environment Department will move swiftly and decisively to ensure protections for both public health and the environment,” Environment Secretary James Kenney said Tuesday.
Aside from violating state environmental laws, Kenney also suggested that the Air Force violated the public’s trust.
“Today we begin holding them accountable,” he said.
The Air Force declined to comment on the lawsuit but argued that its response to PFAS contamination in New Mexico and elsewhere has been aggressive.
Mark Kinkade with the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center said the military has provided alternate water to those in areas where Air Force activity likely contributed to the contamination. He said officials also have been working with the communities and regulators to identify and implement long-term solutions to prevent exposure.
Beyond firefighting foams, PFAS are used in nonstick coatings on things ranging from pans to fast-food wrappers.
Some states and cities have sued the manufacturers of the firefighting foams, saying the companies should have known the chemicals could post a threat to public health and the environment. New York is among them, having spent tens of millions of dollars in state funds to investigate and clean up contamination linked to the chemicals.
According to a report from independent federal investigators, the U.S. military as of 2017 had spent about $200 million on environmental investigations and other responses related to the chemicals at 263 installations around the country. The U.S. Department of Defense has said it could take years to determine a total price tag for PFAS contamination at military sites.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in his drought-stricken state, access to clean water is vital and any amount of contamination is of great concern for residents.
Cannon Air Force Base is located on the edge of Clovis, a community of about 39,000 people that relies on the Ogallala aquifer for its drinking water. The underground supply is already under pressure drought and growing demands along the Texas-New Mexico border.
Sampling had detected PFAS in some off-base wells, which provide drinking water and irrigation water to local dairies. At the Highland Dairy, a half-mile from the base, Air Force sampling showed levels more than seven times the EPA advisory. Sampling by the dairy showed significantly higher concentrations.
Holloman borders Alamogordo, where 31,000 residents rely on groundwater within the Tularosa Basin. Base officials there identified five known sites where the chemicals were released.
Kinkade said drinking water for the base and the city comes from well fields located 12 to 35 miles from the installation. Those wells have been tested and were found to be free of contamination, he said.
State regulators and Air Force officials say sampling is ongoing to determine the extent of the contamination plumes and their migration beyond base boundaries.
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