New Mexico grapples with its ‘forever’ chemicals

The City of Clovis has a water contamination problem but no easy way to fix it.

 

This article was originally published on Feb. 14, 2020 by Our Land, a production of New Mexico PBS, in partnership with PBS FRONTLINE and is reproduced here with permission. Read the original article here.

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

NOTE: On Feb. 20, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft proposal to establish limits for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. That proposal is subject to a 60-day public comment period. 

The presence of toxic “forever” chemicals in the City of Clovis’s water wells raises concerns about where the contamination is coming from — and what New Mexico regulators can do about it.

In a letter customers received over the weekend, EPCOR, the private utility that runs the city’s water system, said it recently found low levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in some of its intake wells. The utility said it shut down the affected wells. 

The human-made chemicals are associated with cancer and myriad health problems, and are known as “forever” chemicals because they bioaccumulate and persist within the body.

EPCOR’s announcement heightened anxiety over how New Mexico can regulate and control the toxic contaminants at a time when the state and the U.S. Department of Defense are embroiled in lawsuits over PFAS cleanup at Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases. Federal efforts to create regulatory limits for the chemicals have stalled, leaving New Mexico without needed authority and relying upon the goodwill of utilities like EPCOR that are voluntarily testing their wells.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall said on Friday he was “incredibly concerned” about EPCOR’s discovery, which NMPBS learned was actually made last summer.

Maps produced by EPCOR and obtained by NMPBS show that wells tested positive for the toxic substances as far back as the summer and fall of 2019, although customers weren’t notified until this month.  

“Our communication plan was timely, and our communication has been transparent and above the table,” said John Calkins, EPCOR’s environmental compliance director. He explained that lab turnaround times are 30-45 days, and positive results require a verification process that includes retesting. “Currently, there is not a national drinking water standard for any PFAS,” he said. “We are doing this strictly voluntarily because we think it’s the right thing to do.” 

The affected wells tested far below a federal lifetime health advisory.

It’s the first time the contaminants — known to be present in high concentrations in groundwater beneath Cannon Air Force Base just outside Clovis — have been found in a public drinking water supply in the state. New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said that even at low levels, their presence is significant.

“The facts are that Cannon has used those aqueous firefighting foams, those have migrated into the groundwater, now, we’re seeing those PFAS chemicals that are in those aqueous firefighting foams in the drinking water,” he said in an interview with NMPBS this week. “So while we haven’t done a forensic analysis to see if it’s the same chemical, the likelihood in my opinion is that it’s moving in that direction — the plume is moving in that direction, the groundwater is moving in that direction, and that might be what we’re seeing.”

State Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, doubts the contamination is coming from Cannon. The wells that tested positive for PFAS — including one about 30 feet from his own property — are upgradient of the plume, he said. He also noted that many of the impacted wells are close to stormwater features, playas, and lakes, such as the city’s Greene Lake and Dennis Chavez Park. These could be affected by debris or wastewater containing PFAS, he said.

PFAS chemicals are found in common household goods ranging from non-stick cookware and stain-resistant carpets, to furniture and fast food containers, to pizza boxes and rain-resistant clothing.  

Below Cannon, however, concentrations were alarming — more than 370 times what federal regulators currently consider safe for a lifetime of exposure. Tests within a four-mile perimeter of the base, conducted in 2018, showed contamination of private drinking wells. Some of the affected wells included those supplying water to dairies, a key component of the local economy. 

As a precaution at that time, EPCOR’s Calkins said the utility shut down two of its wells downgradient of the plume and in the presumed path of groundwater migrating from beneath the base. He said EPCOR has taken any wells that have tested positive for PFAS out of service.

The EPA has yet to set a regulatory threshold for PFAS, which includes more than 7,000 different contaminants. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to set a regulatory threshold for PFAS, which includes more than 7,000 different contaminants. Instead, the federal agency issued a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for two of those chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Exposure to PFOA is linked to reproductive and developmental systems, liver and kidneys, and immune system, as well as high cholesterol, low infant birth weights, cancer, while PFOS is associated with problems like thyroid hormone disruption.

The EPA failed to propose a national drinking water regulatory determination for PFOA and PFOS in 2019, as called for in the agency’s own PFAS Action Plan. Federal regulators are also behind schedule on a number of other actions in that plan, including to finalize toxicity assessments and values for other PFAS, including GenX chemicals, PFBS, PFBA, PFHxA, PFHxS, PFNA and PFDA.

The lack of enforceable federal limits means that state regulators, in New Mexico and around the nation, can’t rein in polluters.

When the EPA sets regulatory limits on contaminants — as it does for substances such as lead, arsenic and uranium — states can impose requirements on public drinking water systems. “On the flip side of that, where we have emerging contaminants that have not yet had the regulatory process play out, we don’t have a maximum level that is regulated for these systems,” said Rebecca Roose, director of NMED’s Water Protection Division.

EPCOR said Friday it continues to test its wells for 21 different PFAS contaminants. Each test costs the utility about $600. Calkins said the company is working closely with NMED, and has asked the military base for assistance. “We’ve asked the Air Force, if and when they do initial sampling off-base, if they would share that data with us,” he said. “They told us they would, it just hasn’t occurred yet.”

New Mexico state Sens. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, introduced a bill that would provide NMED with $700,000 to test wells in Curry and Roosevelt counties for PFAS. With the legislative session entering its final week, the senators’ best hope for funding was to insert the language of their bill into the Senate’s version of the final budget. As of Friday, the money had not been placed in the spending bill.

With the announcement of the PFAS discovery in Clovis, members of New Mexico’s federal delegation increased pressure on the Pentagon. In a Feb. 10 letter, Sens. Udall and Martin Heinrich, as well as Rep. Ben Ray Luján, asked the U.S. Department of Defense to contribute funding toward mapping the extent of the plume from Cannon, and to “immediately open up all lines of communication” with state agencies, despite the ongoing litigation between the military and the state over PFAS contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

Air Force tests showed levels of PFAS up to 1,294,000 parts per trillion — more than 27,000 times the advisory level — in waters below Holloman. One part per trillion is often related as a single drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In the case of the most egregious Holloman sample, that single drop of PFAS toxin swells to more than 17 gallons.

In their letter, Udall, Heinrich and Luján noted that in the months after PFAS were found at Cannon and in agricultural and private wells, the Defense Department “took limited action.” They said military officials “maintained that they were charged only with mitigating contamination to drinking water for human consumption.” 

The congressional letter continued, “The appearance of these chemicals in these wells [in Clovis] is a significant — and very unfortunate — development, particularly since the City of Clovis will likely need to rely on these wells later in the year to meet seasonal demands.”

The Pentagon has yet to respond to the letter, according to Udall’s office.

“While families, business owners, farmers, servicemembers and communities continue to face major financial costs and health risks from exposure to these hazardous chemicals in New Mexico, federal agencies have dragged their feet, unwilling to offer real compensation or a plan to clean up contamination, even when the pollution comes from federal facilities like military bases,” Udall said in a statement to NMPBS. “We need action from the Defense Department leadership to protect our state’s precious water supplies before this becomes an even bigger problem and to provide the cleanup and financial relief that communities in New Mexico and across the country deserve.” 

Laura Paskus is a reporter for Our Land on New Mexico in Focus. Follow her @LauraPaskusEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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