Congress approves defense bill with PFAS cleanup provisions

Art Schaap looks over some of the 1,800 Holstein cows at his Highland Dairy in Clovis. Schaap had to dump thousands of gallons of milk after his dairy farm became contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

A massive defense spending bill that includes provisions meant to help the Air Force clean up chemical contamination in New Mexico and elsewhere has been sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The U.S. Senate approved the $738 billion defense budget 86-8 Tuesday, a week after it cleared the House.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation has touted provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act meant to help the Air Force reel in widespread chemical contamination at bases across the country, including pollution at the Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases in New Mexico.

At Cannon and Holloman, years of routine use of a type of firefighting foam containing cancer-causing chemicals led to nearby groundwater contamination.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico praised congressional approval of the legislation.

“I’m proud that the New Mexico delegation secured this important measure to provide deserved relief to the families, business owners, farmers, service members and communities who have suffered from exposure to PFAS chemicals in New Mexico,” Udall said in a statement. “Federal agencies have dragged their feet for too long, but this bill will finally push them into action.”

The Department of Defense previously had said it didn’t have the authority to clean up contaminated water, Udall said.

“As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I fought hard to make sure that federal agencies quickly remedy contaminated sites like those at Cannon Air Force Base and prevent further risks to public health,” Heinrich said. “This bill will allow the Department of Defense to respond to this issue with the urgency it deserves and mandates a plan of action to clean up contamination and make New Mexico families and businesses whole.”

U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Luján also lauded the passage in statements.

Luján said it will help farmers in Curry County who have been impacted by PFAS pollution, and Torres Small said she personally introduced an amendment to the bill that requires the Air Force to provide water to farmers who have faced contamination that exceeds a federal advisory level.

The legislation also requires Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to submit a cleanup plan that would include budget requests for remediation to Congress for water that has been polluted by two kinds of PFAS: PFOA and PFOS.

There are thousands of chemicals in the PFAS category.

And hundreds of Air Force installations across the country have been contaminated by PFAS chemicals.

In New Mexico, such pollution has found its way to several agricultural wells near the Cannon Air Force Base, outside Clovis.

Udall’s office said the pollution “has caused major disruptions for the local dairy industry” near Clovis and the extent of the contamination outside of Holloman is still uncertain.

Clovis dairy farmer Art Schaap had to dump thousands of gallons of milk after his dairy farm became contaminated with the chemicals. State officials have said Schaap’s is the only farm they’ve found with chemical levels above a federal health guideline.

But state officials have said the extent and speed at which a plume of toxic chemicals are moving near Clovis and Alamogordo is still undetermined.

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney asked the Legislature to approve $1.2 million to determine the extent of the pollution, as well as where and how quickly it is migrating, Kenney said in a November interview.

PFAS are a class of 5,000 chemicals known to increase the risk of cancer, impair childhood development, affect fertility and the immune system, and increase cholesterol levels, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They are found in everything from firefighting foam to fast-food wrappers, clothing, cosmetics, upholstery and nonstick cookware.

Also in November, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said the Air Force’s inaction in cleaning up toxic pollution in the state amounts to a “corruption case.”

Balderas’ office sued the U.S. Air Force, alleging the federal entity is violating state law by refusing to clean up PFAS pollution, but the state attorney general has not filed any public corruption charges and has no plans to do so.

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