The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Officials, residents seek answers on contamination


October 21, 2018

In the days following public announcement of a chemical contamination in area water wells, residents and public officials are asking for answers, action and accountability.

Potential health effects to residents, livestock and dairy production were among concerns from citizens, while others also feared impacts to property values.

The chemical has been linked to firefighting activities at Cannon Air Force Base.

“We have serious concerns with the contamination found in and around (CAFB) and the Air Force’s lack of leadership and immediate response to this situation,” wrote two U.S. Congressional representatives in a letter to the Pentagon. “It is imperative that much more be done.”

The letter, signed jointly by Ben Lujan and gubernatorial candidate Michelle Grisham, was sent Thursday to AF Secretary Heather Wilson.

Their response followed a news release Tuesday from the New Mexico Environment Department that warned of hazards “that may be associated with an increased risk of cancer and other health ailments.”

The chemicals had been discovered in August in monitoring wells on base and have been since located in private wells off-base at levels exceeding a health advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Testing on those wells is in progress through an “Expanded Site Inspection” headed by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. But detailed results and a timeline as to when that testing will be completed have not been released.

Until an “all clear” is issued, NMED encouraged residents with private domestic wells within a four-mile radius of Cannon’s southeast boundary use bottled water for drinking and cooking. Health officials also urged property owners in the area to contact the Department of Health to get their wells tested.

It’s not clear how many water wells might be impacted. Contamination had been found in a “small number” of 19 off-base wells tested, officials said last week.

While NMED said the Air Force has “informed affected residents of the test results and is making bottled water available,” some residents in or near the affected area said they were still in the dark.

“The base still has not contacted me,” said April Bryant last week. She said she owns a property in the affected area. “I called them and I haven’t heard back from them.”

Bryant said she was added to a list to have her well tested after calling to NMDOH’s Epidemiology and Response Division (505-827-0006), but wasn’t told when that test might take place.

She has other questions, too.

“I’d like to know what they’re going to do about the effects that it’s going to have not only on the people that have been living there, but what they’re going to do about the financial side effects,” she said.

“Even if they come and say our wells are clear, who’s going to buy my house?”

The co-owner of an alpaca farm near the affected area told The News she was concerned with the immediate task of getting her livestock clean water as well as the unknown long-term effects of chemical exposure.

That said, Rosemary Metcalf said she was grateful for the water-saving measures the farm had already utilized in recent years: giving their animals rain water when possible and using bottled water at home and in refreshments for farm guests.

“We have little enough water and now we’re being told it’s contaminated. So thank you,” she said. “In a strange way, our water shortage might have helped us out a bit.”

NMED identified the chemicals in question as “Per-and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),” which among other items are associated with fire-fighting foam previously used by base personnel. The EPA reports that exposure to the chemicals can also result in adverse effects to the liver, thyroid, immune system, developing fetuses and breastfed infants, among other issues.

“They are also known to be environmentally persistent, mobile in groundwater, and bioaccumulate in the food web,” said the NMED release.

The Air Force phased out of using that foam in favor of “a new, more environmentally responsible formula” last year, according to a news release in late August from the CAFB.

The announcements in August followed word from the Department of Defense in April “that 126 (military) bases had well contamination from the chemical foam,” according to a news release Friday from Grisham.

Cannon’s media spokesman said this summer that drinking water on base was safe, and emphasized the same was still true this week.

“I would like to make it very clear that in accordance with federal guidelines, the Director of Base Medical Services continually monitors all on-base drinking water wells, to include those that service all military housing areas,” John Rebello said in a message Thursday to The News. “The drinking water on Cannon Air Force Base is safe for consumption and use.”

Rebello directed most of The News’ other questions on the contamination to an AFCEC representative, who had not responded by Friday night.

Clovis and Portales city officials last week said they had no concerns with municipal drinking water.

In their letter last week to the Pentagon, Grisham and Lujan urged the Air Force “to respond without delay” to NMED’s Sept. 26 request for a detailed plan of corrective action, including a “proposal to further delineate the groundwater plume.”

Or as NMED’s deputy secretary, Bruce Yurdin, told The News on Tuesday: “The bottom line is we intend to fully hold the U.S. Air Force accountable for this contamination.”


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