State Fines Air Force $1.7M Over Base Wastewater Monitoring Near Clovis

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Firefighters work to extinguish a simulated engine fire at Cannon Air Force Base.
FILE -- In this file photo, firefighters work to extinguish a simulated engine fire at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, Aug. 2, 2012. Chemicals associated with firefighting foam once used at the base have been detected in groundwater. (Eboni Prince/U.S. Air Force)

The New Mexico Environment Department fined the U.S. Air Force nearly $1.7 million for failing to monitor potentially cancer-causing pollution discharged at a base near Clovis and allowing a wastewater permit to lapse.

The state agency has asked the Air Force for the money within 30 days and says the military branch could still be emitting carcinogenic chemicals known as PFAS even after the state filed a lawsuit over the issue in March. The suit, brought by the state Attorney General's Office and Environment Department, came after groundwater samples indicated chemical levels were hundreds of times higher than a federal health advisory limit.

For years, the Air Force routinely used a potent type of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals at bases across the country. The state Environment Department now says the military is continuing to discharge wastewater likely to contain the chemicals. Under state law, the Air Force is supposed to monitor its wastewater for such substances but has failed to do so, according to a compliance order the department filed Thursday.

"The Air Force continues to ignore New Mexico's environmental laws," Environment Secretary James Kenney said in a statement. "Rather than address PFAS contamination, the Department of Defense shows no interest in helping afflicted communities and impacted natural resources."

The Air Force did not immediately respond to emails Thursday seeking comment.

Pollution from Cannon Air Force, about seven miles west of Clovis, has leached into nearby groundwater and severely contaminated at least one dairy farm. There also is an unknown amount of PFAS contamination from Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

The Environment Department is asking state lawmakers for $1.2 million this year to study the toxic plume near Clovis. State regulators still do not know the extent of the pollution or how quickly it is spreading.

According to the state's compliance order, the Air Force submitted a permit renewal application Sept. 10, 2018, for discharge of up to 1.5 million gallons per day of "domestic and industrial wastewater" from Cannon Air Force Base to a treatment plant and 14 septic tanks.

Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department, said water from the treatment plant is discharged to North Playa Lake on the base and used to irrigate a golf course, driving range, dog park and softball fields.

Aside from PFAS chemicals, the wastewater likely contains other pollutants, including nitrate, chloride, Kjeldahl nitrogen and dissolved metals that exceed state standards, the compliance order said.

The Air Force's permit renewal application did not include PFAS chemicals, so it "cannot be deemed technically complete" under state law, the order said.

The order said Kenney in February "verbally informed" John Henderson, an Air Force assistant secretary, about the lack of information on PFAS in the permit renewal application. In March, the department notified the Air Force in writing that it still hadn't received a proper application.

The state allowed two deadline extensions for the permit application but still has not received one containing information about PFAS, the compliance order said. 

This article is written by Michael Gerstein from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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