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

Q&A: What to know about water contamination


October 28, 2018

David Grieder

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall discusses the need for government and military accountability for the recent water contamination during an interview Wednesday in Clovis.

CLOVIS — Though the Air Force has completed its testing of wells in the "impact" zone of a water contamination from Cannon AFB, residents in the area are still awaiting tests from the state's Department of Health to the same effect.

And plenty others still have questions, which military and state officials are answering bit by bit in the weeks following announcement of a chemical contamination stemming from past firefighting activities at the base.

The News attempts below to answer some common questions on the issue with aggregated responses from what officials have released thus far:

What are these chemicals, and what are their risks?

Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) describes the broader name for a category of chemicals that include Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), which the EPA classifies as "unregulated emerging contaminants" and for which it only established a lifetime health advisory in drinking water two years ago.

"They are known to be environmentally persistent, mobile in groundwater, and bioaccumulate in the food web," said a news release Oct. 16 from the New Mexico Environment Department. "...this is an emerging issue across the nation with minimal available scientific data."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS can increase the risk of cancer, affect the immune system, cause reproductive issues for women and impact "growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children."

NMED advised this month that those in the impact area only use bottled water for drinking and cooking until the contamination is addressed.

What are the limits of the contamination? Will it spread?

NMED and the Air Force trace the contamination to "on-base military firefighting activities" with a special foam containing PFOS and PFOA, one that spread to a four-mile portion of Clovis southeast of the base.

According to NMED Communications Director Katy Diffendorfer, "the highest levels of contamination are in groundwater in the southeast corner" of CAFB, with regional groundwater moving southeast from there. Levels above the EPA's health advisory in on-base groundwater monitoring wells were first reported by the base in August, with the promise of an expanded site study.

"The impacted area is limited to land inside the vicinity of Highway 467, Roosevelt Road and Highway 6, that extends approximately four-miles outside of the southeast base boundary," according to a news release Tuesday from the Air Force.

Diffendorfer said it's possible for that area to spread. However, NMED only "intend(s) to base decisions on additional well testing and remediation of the contamination on what we know at each step, including test results obtained thus far and what is known of the geology and movement of groundwater in the immediate area."

In a message Friday to The News, she said the Air Force "has been required to conduct a hydrogeologic investigation and sample additional wells to determine the extent of the plume."

What has the Air Force determined and done so far concerning the contamination?

This month the Air Force Civil Engineer Center completed sampling of 25 water sources in the impact area, determining three of those to have PFAS at levels above the EPA's health advisory of 70 parts per trillion and two others below that threshold but still in need of monitoring. Twenty of them "did not have detectable levels" of the contaminants, according to a news release.

"The Air Force has provided alternate drinking water at those locations (above the health advisory)," said a news release. "The Air Force is evaluating the need for future drinking water sampling and will keep the community informed as next steps are determined,"

What is the process for getting a well tested and a contamination addressed?

NMED encouraged those in the impact area to get their wells tested by calling the state Department of Health's Epidemiology and Response Division at 505-827-0006. For those who call and are confirmed in the impact area, sampling should begin near the end of this week.

"Sampling of a well can be done in a matter of an hour or so," Diffendorfer wrote, "... preliminary results can usually be ready in three to four weeks."

The state is working on issuing a fact sheet detailing treatment methods for impacted well water, but Diffendorfer said Friday that among those methods are "granular or powdered activated carbon and reverse osmosis."

As for the cost, state agencies are working to at least cover the well tests. An email Friday from the office of U.S. Representative Ben Ray Luján said NMED was "able to locate funds through the CDC to the NM Department of Health to do well testing.

"They are reaching out to constituents who had contacted the line they provided," continued Patrick Duran in the email Friday to Curry County Manager Lance Pyle.

Is it safe to consume products from dairies that may have used contaminated water? What about crops and livestock brought up with that water?

PFAS can be absorbed by crops, Diffendorfer said, which can in turn pose risks to livestock that eat them and their products, such as milk and meat. She said two dairies tested above the EPA's health advisory, and that the state's Department of Agriculture "has asked the FDA" for criteria on PFAS concentrations in food.

"Until there are FDA-established human health-based levels for food products, (state agencies) believe any actions taken now regarding the impacted dairies would not be based on the known science and would therefore be premature," she said.

Are city water supplies impacted? Is the drinking water on base safe?

City officials for Clovis and Portales have maintained their water supplies are unaffected. According to Diffendorfer, none of EPCOR's 70 production wells surrounding Clovis are in the impacted area; the city water supplier advised as much last week but said it would still test wells nearby in an "abundance of caution."

Cannon's chief of media operations has maintained that the water on base is still safe to drink.

What do our elected representatives have to say about the situation?

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) came through eastern New Mexico last week, meeting Wednesday in Portales and Clovis with the city's military affairs committees, among other stops. In an interview following with The News, he said citizens can't be left hanging.

"It's the government and the military's responsibility to make these people whole. That's really what they should be doing," he said. "So if there's damage in terms of their water and their water supply, they should get them water, if it's their crops, their livestock, they should just make them whole."

According to a news release Oct. 19, U.S. Congressional representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force expressing their "serious concerns with the contamination" and "the Air Force's lack of leadership and immediate response to this situation," urging them "to be responsive, timely, and transparent with all New Mexico state agencies."

How else can the public give input to the Air Force on the situation?

A town hall meeting next month with "subject-matter experts from pertinent federal and state agencies" will be announced soon, according to the Air Force's media release. It went on to cite Lt. Col Russell Gheesling, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron commander, who said it should "answer any questions Cannon Air Force Base's community partners, concerned citizens and other stakeholders may have about this topic."


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