The state Environment Department is stepping up efforts to prevent a cancer-causing pollutant from being discharged into state waters.

The agency has awarded a contract to map toxic plumes near two military bases while launching a project to test drinking-water sources in 19 counties for carcinogenic chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

These efforts will help determine the next steps in identifying and managing PFAS pollution in the state, the agency said.

Two prime sources of PFAS pollution are Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases, located in Clovis and Alamogordo, respectively. In the 2020 legislative session, the Environment Department received $1 million to address PFAS in those two areas.

“With the Department of Defense not doing anything to curtail the movement of that plume and passing the cost onto New Mexico, I’m glad we could do something,” Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said in a phone interview.

Kenney added he will do everything in his power to ensure the Defense Department bears the full cost of remedying the pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no drinking water limit for PFAS. It has a 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 ill effects if PFAS is ingested above this threshold for many years.

Adverse health effects include increased cholesterol, reproductive problems and cancer.

PFAS are used in a variety of products, including food packaging, non-stick pans and a firefighting foam.

They are known as “forever” chemicals because they do not easily degrade in the environment, allowing them to accumulate in soil, water and living organisms.

The Environment Department awarded a $1 million contract to Daniel B. Stephens & Associates Inc. this month to study the movement of PFAS groundwater plumes in Alamogordo and Clovis. The work, which will begin in a few weeks, must be completed before any cleanup efforts can begin, the agency said. The firm also will look at what extent the pollution affects nearby public water systems and the area’s wildlife

“The first step toward addressing PFAS contamination in New Mexico is finding out where these chemicals are,” Rebecca Roose, the agency’s water protection division director, said in a statement.

The state has ongoing legal battles with the Department of Defense over PFAS.

In September, the Air Force agreed to pay a $251,000 fine to the state for failing to monitor Cannon’s PFAS discharges and letting that facility’s wastewater permit expire.

The state Attorney General’s Office filed a separate lawsuit against the Air Force in 2019 after groundwater samples in Clovis and Alamogordo showed chemical levels hundreds of times higher than federal health advisory limit.

Meanwhile, the 19-county sampling effort, which began last year and will go to the summer, focuses on multiple ground and surface water sources. So far, sampling doesn’t indicate any pressing public health threats, the agency said.

The EPA provided about $660,000 for the sampling. Kenney complained the state had to turn to the federal agency for the money after the state Legislature refused to increase the Environment Department’s budget to cover these costs.

“It’s been a two-year slog to try to protect New Mexicans from PFAS simply because of gross underfunding of drinking water,” Kenney said.

If significant levels of PFAS are detected, the agency will advise local water providers on mitigation.

The U.S. Geological Survey will publish a report of the state’s findings in 2022.

If there continues to be no federal drinking water standards for PFAS, Kenney said his agency will look into developing a state standard for the chemicals. But it would be a difficult endeavor that would require more staffing and money than what state lawmakers typically want to fund, Kenney said.

“When you’ve got a strong budget, you can develop it yourself,” Kenney said.

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