ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A defense spending bill that’s close to clearing Congress is getting praise from members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, who say it includes some relief for communities affected by contamination at Air Force bases in the state and elsewhere around the country.
New Mexico is currently locked in a legal battle with the U.S. government over plumes at two military installations that contain chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities. The contamination is linked to chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
Similar contamination has been found at dozens of military sites across the nation. Growing evidence that exposure can be dangerous has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider setting new standards.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said military leaders owe all Americans a plan to clean up the contamination.
“Federal agencies have dragged their feet for too long, but this bill will finally push them into action,” he said in a statement. “The Department of Defense says they lack authority to help farmers and ranchers with contaminated water, and our bill fixes that problem.”
Under the legislation, the U.S. Defense Department would have authority to use funds to provide alternate sources of water for those affected. That could include the treatment of contaminated agricultural water.
The language also includes a mandate for the Defense Department to create a plan to clean up contaminated sites nationwide and take all necessary steps to prevent further risks to public health.
“I’ve seen what happens to the health of family and friends when toxic sites are not cleaned up, and it’s not something we should risk,” said U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The state of New Mexico sued in April, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up toxic plumes at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis and Holloman air base near Alamogordo. The Air Force has confirmed that firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals that was previously used around Cannon and Holloman contaminated nearby groundwater.
The extent of impacts near Holloman is still being determined, but officials have said the contamination at Cannon has affected several agricultural wells.
Clovis dairy farmer Art Schaap has said he was forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk and consider whether he needed to kill off his herd. State environment and agriculture officials say Schaap’s farm is the only one they’ve found drawing from groundwater with chemical levels above the federal limit.
Testing of public water supplies in Clovis and Alamogordo did not find detectable levels, according to the state Environment Department.
New Mexico’s lawsuit calls for the Air Force to pay for studying and cleaning up the contamination.
The Air Force has declined to comment on the litigation but has said its response to the toxic chemicals has been aggressive. In New Mexico, the military provided alternate water sources for those affected and has been working with state regulators to prevent exposure.