I-Team | PFAS chemicals destroying Clovis dairy, threatening communities nationwide

New Mexico

Years of use of a man-made chemical foam to put out jet fuel fires at Cannon Air Force base has one area dairy farmer saying it is destroying his business and harming his health. 

The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The chemical bond in these substances is rarely found in nature and never really breaks down or leaves our environment. 

PFAS have been used in industrial and consumer products since the 1950s. Among many other uses, including clothing and carpeting fabric protectors and nonstick coatings in cookware, two of these chemicals, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), were used in firefighting foam at military installations across the country since the 1970s, including at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis.  

Air Force Officials say only trace amounts are found in the foam now, but they acknowledge decades of use allowed the chemicals to slowly seep down into the groundwater below. 

Art Schaap is a dairy farmer whose farm is located southeast of Cannon Air Force Base. 

“Me and my wife and kids. We run this operation with our employees. We’ve been here since 1992,” said Schaap, the owner of Highland Dairy.

Schaap had operated Highland Dairy near Clovis for more than 25 years when he received this letter from the Air Force in October of 2018 suggesting his drinking water is contaminated.  

The Air Force and New Mexico Environment Department confirm over time an underwater plume of PFAS-contaminated water has reached his wells. Schapp says this has wreaked havoc on his business.  

“…the Food Safety Inspection Service said that I could not sell my animals because of–it could be adultered beef in the food market also,” Schaap said. “So, the packer houses don’t want to buy my cows, the milk plants don’t want to buy my milk, and for food safety reasons, we are not selling the cows or selling the milk.” 

In 2016, the EPA issued guidance setting the maximum amount of PFAS exposure for humans at 70 parts per trillion but it has not yet established enforceable drinking water standards. 

According to Schaap and an environmental expert he hired, some wells on his land have been measured at well above the EPA guidance.

Sample results given to us by the New Mexico Environment Department show one dairy supply well had more than 1,600 parts per trillion PFOS and PFOA combined. Another nearby well, closer to the Air Force Base, had the highest concentration at more than 14,000 parts per trillion. That reading is more than 204 times the EPA standard.  

“So, we learned in the ’90s and the 2000s that making chemicals that were extremely persistent was not a good thing for our bodies or for the environment,” said Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences & National Toxicology Program.

Dr. Birnbaum has led the charge on understanding PFAS and how they affect humans. She testified before the Senate last September on the health effects associated with human exposure to PFAS. 

“Everybody in the United States has PFAS in their body,” Dr. Birnbaum said.

But Schaap claims blood tests show his levels are much higher than the EPA recommended exposure level. 

“So, eight times the limit in my body. Is that healthy? I don’t think so,” Schaap said. “We don’t know what the consequences are. We’re hoping for no consequence.” 

However, Dr. Birnbaum says there are studies that associate PFAS exposure and illnesses, but she notes that actually proving the PFAS caused a particular illness is difficult. 

“There’s evidence for kidney and testicular cancer. There’s clear evidence for impacts on the immune system. There’s impacts on lipids and cholesterol levels…some evidence for impacts on the liver as well,” Dr. Birnbaum added. “There is data suggesting that there can be, you know, showing associations with pre-term birth, birthweight of babies.” 

Schaap’s lawyers have filed a civil lawsuit in New Mexico’s U.S. District Court against seven PFAS and foam manufacturers. 

Associate Attorney Tate J. Kunkle of Napoli & Shknolnik PLLC, claims the defendants failed to properly warn the Air Force about their products. 

“They knew it caused health effects,” Kunkle said. “The stuff’s never going away and they elected to–to sell it and put it in firefighting foam that they knew was going to go across the country, not just Air Force bases, and never told one firefighter, never told anyone.” 

We have reached out to each company listed as defendants in Schaap’s lawsuit against foam manufacturers. At this point, only 3M has responded.  

Their statement reads: “3M cares deeply about the safety and health of New Mexico’s communities. 3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its environmental stewardship.” 

“Since October 30, we’ve been dumping our milk because milk is very strictly regulated and we do not want that in the food supply,” said Schaap. “We had 40 employees and 40 families. Currently, we have, we are down to six employees.” 

Schaap said unless the Food Safety Inspection Service will allow him to sell his cows, he will be forced to euthanize them. 

“Here you have it in the groundwater to you know, an irrigated field or directly drank by, you know, a dairy cow and then into the milk, which is either sold as milk or into cheese and, you know, who knows what else and then distributed across the country. So, it’s quite a long chain, but these, you know these chemicals are forever,” Kunkle said.

According to Kunkle, most of the blame lies with the foam manufacturers, but even though they did not know, the Air Force shares a little responsibility as the dischargers of it.  

The Air Force has provided clean drinking water to those affected near Clovis since this past October when the Air Force announced the contamination at Cannon. 

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico congressional delegation released a joint statement in February. 

It reads in part: “We will pursue all available avenues to protect New Mexico’s water supplies and ensure affected New Mexicans are made whole as soon as possible.” 

A spokesman from the Air Force, Mark Kinkade, said the Air Force shares the communities’ concerns and is doing everything required under current federal law, which requires the Air Force to address risks caused by the presence of PFAS in drinking water. But the Air Force is focusing on the most urgent threat to ensure no one is drinking water with PFOS/PFOA at concentrations above the EPA guidance by providing alternative drinking water as quickly as possible to affected residents. The Air Force is continuing to meet with the Clovis community and regulators regarding the issue. 

For now, people like Schaap are left to fend for themselves. 

The New Mexico Environment Department issued a notice of violation to Cannon Air Force Base on November 30 with two stipulations:

A) Identify short-term solutions for dairies like Schaap’s and, B) Look into installing water treatment systems.

The Air Force has responded to the notice of violation, but the Environment Department has said there is no further update on the notice of violation.

On March 5, the State of New Mexico filed suit to compel the military to address PFAS contamination at both Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases.

Environment Secretary James Kenney said in part: “In addition to violating environmental laws, the Air Force violated our public trust. Today we begin holding them accountable.”

The complaint alleges the Air Force violated the state’s Hazardous Waste Act and that the contamination is a danger to communities on and off base.

The state requests immediate injunctive relief from the court that requires the Air Force to clean up contamination at both bases.  

We did reach out to the Air Force for comment. In a statement, Air Force Spokesman, Major Nicholas Mercurio said, “We do not comment on ongoing litigation.”

Each day that goes by without a solution, Schaap says he loses more money.  

“They say that they want to help but nothing’s getting done. They are supplying only water for–drinking water for human consumption, and they have no intention on doing any ground–I mean water replacement for the, for the dairy cows,” Schaap said. “That’s our 401k, and as at this point–I have a zero value on that.”

Schaap’s lawyers tell us they have also filed a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act to sue the United States Air Force for their use of firefighting foam, which led to the PFAS contamination at Highland Dairy.

The Air Force has six months to respond.  

“…it seems to be relatively easy for them to fix it, but I think they’re afraid of the precedent,” Kunkle said.

However, according to U.S. Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Amarillo), the Department of Defense, including the Air Force, is dependent upon the EPA to provide targets for the cleanup work.

“That’s not something that the Pentagon has any expertise to figure out on its own,” said Rep. Thornberry. “So, it is one part of the government that is basically waiting on another part of the government to use their scientists and expertise to tell us what’s right.”

Schaap’s dairy is just one example of PFAS contamination.

In March of 2018, the DOD presented its most recent information to the House Armed Services Committee and its then-chairman, Rep. Thornberry.  

According to that report, 126 current and former military installations, mostly in the U.S., had contamination levels at or above the acceptable 70 parts per trillion in drinking and groundwater sources. As site inspections continue, the DOD and Air Force continue to test water sources on and nearby more military bases, including Cannon Air Force Base, which was tested in 2018.

“…Our first deal was to try to get our arms around the size of the problem when it comes to the military. Of course, it’s not just a military problem. It has been used at airports, a whole variety of places of civilian and so forth,”  Rep. Thornberry added.

For decades, PFAS have been used at airports, by some fire stations, and even in many consumer products, including non-stick cookware.

Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety, and Infrastructure, says the Air Force is providing clean drinking water at 21 locations where water is contaminated.  

“…This is just not an Air Force issue. This is just not a Department of Defense issue, there is PFOS and PFOA contamination all over the country.”

At this point, Correll says no PFAS cleanup has started on any Air Force installations.  

“I’m a 29 year Air Force veteran, I lived on all these bases. I drink this water, I’m sure I’ve got the PFOS/PFOA in my bloodstream, like everybody else. I care and I have kids, they’re in the same boat,” Correll said.

A bipartisan PFAS task force was established in Washington in January.

“We really have to get EPA to understand that this is a threat to our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan).

Right now, there are no federal regulations specifically for PFAS. That is why the task force is urging the EPA to establish an enforceable nationwide drinking water standard.   

Acting EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, said they will have a proposal by the end of 2019.

“…EPA has already begun the regulatory development process for listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfunds statute,” Wheeler said. “This important work will provide additional tools to help states and communities address existing contamination and recover costs from responsible parties.”

Representative Thornberry said the DOD needs EPA standards to take the next step.

“…you’re telling us this could be a problem, but you’re not telling us what the goal should be in the cleanup efforts and it has been essentially impossible for DOD or municipal water utilities around the country or anybody else to really begin the cleanup work,” Rep. Thornberry said.

Schaap just wants a solution.

“…In New Mexico, water is life and West Texas, water’s life,” said Schaap. “Without water, and our groundwater that–we cannot farm, we can’t have animals, we can’t survive without water, good water.”

Schaap said he believes one day a solution will be reached. Until then, he hopes for a good outcome in his lawsuit against foam manufacturers and the Air Force or other responsible parties will buy his land so he can move to a place with clean water and continue to work his dairy farm.

A new bill introduced by U.S. legislators would ensure DOD can help agricultural producers facing groundwater contamination from military bases and require a nationwide cleanup plan.

Air Force officials say once the EPA establishes federal regulations and cleaning standards for PFAS chemicals, they will comply with the law.

At the end of April, the EPA released a draft plan to deal with high levels of PFAS in ground and drinking water. However, some lawmakers and environmentalists are not happy, saying it is not enough.

If you are dealing with PFAS contamination and cannot wait that long, there are options. Granular Activated Carbon filters usually work to remove the majority of PFAS. They sell online for less than $20, but several high-end filters cost hundreds, and industrial filters even more.

Several states have taken it upon themselves to establish their own PFAS regulations.  

The New Mexico Environment Department said in its Notice of Violation to Cannon Air Force Base that the Air Force is operating in violation of the New Mexico Water Quality Act and its correlated Ground and Surface Water Protection Regulations.

Follow these links to search and view applicable NMSA 1978, 74-6-2(B) and (C); 20.6.2.1203 NMAC; 20.6.2.3103.A(2) NMAC; and 20.6.2.7.T(2)(s) NMAC.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), released a draft toxicological profile on PFAS this past summer, which challenged the EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory for PFAS, saying they recommend much lower exposure levels. The report still has not been finalized and Air Force officials say EPA guidelines are the only recommendations which the Air Force and other branches of the military follow, in addition to applicable state and federal laws.

The CDC announced Feb. 21 it would conduct testing for PFAS exposure in people near current or former military installations, including in Lubbock County. See the news release here.

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