Recent detection of cancer-causing pollution in Clovis’ drinking water prompted three New Mexico congressional leaders to call for the Defense Department to map and clean up the contaminated groundwater under Cannon Air Force Base.
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján wrote a letter Sunday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, criticizing the agency’s lack of action in monitoring and filtering PFAS —known carcinogenic substances — that have been discharged from military bases for years in the state.
They called for the Defense Department to help mitigate PFAS found in 10 of 82 wells at the Clovis treatment plant.
“Immediate action must be taken to ensure the City of Clovis will have the clean water they need to meet demand well into the future,” the letter said. “To that end, we ask that you make Department of Defense resources available to both delineate the plume and begin remediating contamination.”
EPCOR, the company that operates the plant, detected PFAS at the point where the drinking water is piped to households. Crews immediately shut down the 10 contaminated wells.
“The appearance of these chemicals in these wells is a significant — and very unfortunate — development, particularly since the City of Clovis anticipates the need to restart the wells later in the year to meet seasonal demands,” the letter said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no drinking water limit for PFAS.
It has established a lifetime health advisory level for two chemicals in the PFAS group — PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion, which means there may be adverse effects if PFAS chemicals are ingested above this threshold for many years.
PFAS levels were below that lifetime threshold in Clovis, but state regulators have said any amount in drinking water is bad.
For years, the military used a firefighting foam containing PFAS at bases across the country, including in Cannon and Holloman air force bases.
The state attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Air Force last year after groundwater samples in Clovis and Alamogordo indicated chemical levels were hundreds of times higher than the federal health advisory limit.
Last month, the state Environment Department fined the Air Force $1.7 million for failing to monitor PFAS pollution near Clovis and letting its wastewater permit expire.
The agency also has requested $1.2 million from the state Legislature to map the PFAS plumes and devise cleanup strategies. Lawmakers want the military to chip in, arguing it has spent $200 million to investigate and clean up PFAS chemicals in drinking water near bases outside New Mexico.
“Our expectation is that the Department of Defense contribute to this effort and immediately open up all lines of communication with the state executive agencies, despite ongoing litigation related to this issue,” the letter said.
The New Mexico delegation introduced the PFAS Damages Act last year to provide relief to PFAS-affected communities and businesses, including ranches and farms.
The bill was included as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act.
The measure ensures the Defense Department works to prevent human exposure to the chemicals, treat contaminated water and acquire nearby properties that are polluted, according to a joint statement from Udall, Heinrich and Luján.
“We are [awaiting] your response for new authorities under the Defense Authorization Act … to purchase contaminated land in order to implement filtration and treatment,” the letter states. “These matters just became even more urgent, with new threats to New Mexico’s limited water supplies and public health.”