Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

EPA updates toxic PFAS chemical advisories

Art Schaap, owner and dairy farmer of Highland Dairy, stands next to his well that connects to a filter system he had to purchase to filter PFAS out of his contaminated water at his farm in Clovis, New Mexico on May 27, 2022. Thousands of Schaap’s cows were contaminated with PFAS, after drinking groundwater that migrated from Cannon Air Force Base. (Chancey Bush/ )

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The US Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced updated drinking water health advisories for two types of toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

The new advisory limits are drastically lower than the agency’s guidance issued six years ago – a signal that even minuscule amounts of the waterproof chemicals are a health hazard.

New Mexico has spent several years grappling with the contaminants.

In Clovis, a plume of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, migrated from Cannon Air Force Base to the groundwater at a neighboring dairy farm.

The chemicals were in foam used in firefighting training exercises.

The pollution forced Highland Dairy owner Art Schaap to euthanize thousands of contaminated cows and filter water for his family.

EPA administrator Michael Regan said his agency is working to “protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge.”

“People on the front lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” Regan said in a statement.

Health advisories are not a legally enforceable standard.

The EPA expects to announce a drinking water standard this fall.

Still, the standards would be limited to regulating water for human consumption, not for agriculture.

The New Mexico Environment Department is suing the US Air Force to outline and clean up the contamination at and near Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases.

PFAS do not break down naturally in the environment.

State Environment Secretary Jim Kenney has long encouraged the EPA to move quickly on finalizing regulations.

He said that putting “teeth to policy” would enable the federal government and the state to require cleanup and prevent more pollution.

“We don’t want to perpetuate that cycle of simply recycling PFAS through the environment,” Kenney told the Journal in May.

The new PFOA lifetime health advisory is .004 parts per trillion, and the new PFOS advisory level is .02 parts per trillion. Both are synthetic chemicals in the PFAS group.

The advisory levels were previously 70 parts per trillion.

The agency said the new lifetime advisories “indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below the EPA’s ability to detect at this time.”

PFAS exposure can impact vaccine effectiveness, according to the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The chemicals may also increase cholesterol, and contribute to low birth weights and cancer risk.

Cannon Air Force Base officials said Wednesday that the new advisories may influence how the military base collects soil and water data for the Clovis contamination plume.

Some on-base groundwater samples show PFOS levels ranging from 81 to 29,700 parts per trillion.

Groundwater samples southeast of the base tested as high as 1,900 parts per trillion.

A Cannon Air Force Base aircraft prepares to land at the base in Clovis, New Mexico, that is surrounded by farms on May 25, 2022. Thousands of Art Schaap’s cows were euthanized due to being contaminated with PFAS after drinking groundwater that migrated from Cannon Air force base. (Chancey Bush/ )

Cannon is installing 13 more on-base monitoring wells, said Christipher Gierke, remedial project manager with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. The Air Force will also build off-base wells to help determine whether a future pump-and-treat pilot project will work.

“So, if we need to add additional extraction wells and injection wells, this can easily be done to ensure that we get that full capture of that plume migrating off base,” Gierke said.

Cannon officials cut Wednesday’s virtual public meeting short after the Zoom presentation was hacked.

The base said another public meeting will be held at a later date.

In 2020, Clovis utility EPCOR removed several water wells from service that tested for combined PFOA and PFAS levels between 4 and 7 parts per trillion.

Those results were well below the old advisory. But they would now exceed the agency’s guidance for safe drinking water.

State testing has detected PFAS in nine private water wells in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

PFOA and PFOS were not found in the sampling.

Widespread use means that most Americans have been exposed to PFAS through drinking water or manufactured products, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The chemicals were used for decades in such products as Teflon and Scotchgard.

The agency also issued health advisories for two chemicals that some manufacturers have used to replace PFAS.

States and tribes can apply for EPA grant funding to test for and treat PFAS contamination.

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