Photo courtesy of US Air Force

Air Force juggles water contamination at multiple bases

February 08, 2019 - 7:22 am
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Water contamination at multiple installations has the Air Force juggling cleanup responsibilities. 

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson is pledging cooperation with the state of Michigan over toxic chemical pollution near a former military installation, despite a continuing dispute about cleanup responsibilities.

Wilson made the promise in a letter to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who released it Thursday.

Peters complained to Wilson after the Air Force told Michigan in December it wasn’t bound by state standards involving chemicals known as PFAS. They are used in firefighting foam and have polluted surface and ground waters near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says the Air Force isn’t doing enough to clean it up.

In her letter, Wilson said the Air Force is complying with federal law and Assistant Secretary John Henderson plans to visit the state.

On top of the contamination in Michigan, officials in New Mexico recently confirmed that water at Holloman Air Force Base is contaminated.

Holloman Air Force Base violated its state permit for groundwater discharge after toxic chemicals were found in groundwater and has yet to respond to concerns from environmental officials, the New Mexico Environment Department said Wednesday.

In a letter to U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Campo, the department said the contamination discovered in November violates the New Mexico Water Quality Act and other regulations.

A site inspection report said groundwater below Holloman tested positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances at levels nearly twice the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water health advisory.

According to the EPA, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of human-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. The agency says manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams are some of the main sources of the chemicals.

The EPA also said on its website that exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances can lead to cancer, thyroid disorders, and low infant birth weights.

State officials say the chemicals were present in aqueous film-forming foam previously used by the Air Force in firefighting.

In a statement, Holloman Air Force confirmed that chemicals came from foam that was used for firefighting, which the stopped using back 2016.

The Air Force also reported identifying sampling results at other locations on the base not covered by the groundwater discharge permit with pollutants over 18,000 times the EPA’s drinking water health advisory.

The state’s environment department is evaluating the potential uses of groundwater in the area to ensure the owners of private, agricultural and industrial walls are informed of the contamination, said state Ground Water Quality Bureau Chief Michelle Hunter.

She said failure to comply with the violation notice could result in an administrative compliance order that can assess civil penalties up to $15,000 a day for each violation.

In a statement, Holloman Air Force confirmed that chemicals came from foam that was used for firefighting, which the stopped using back 2016. The base said Air Force officials received the letter Thursday from the New Mexico Environment Department and Air Force-level subject matter experts are reviewing it.

Environment Department Secretary-designate Jim Kenney said state officials are looking at all options to respond to the contamination.

“We are dismayed by the Air Force’s lack of prompt response to the contamination found at Holloman and will use all avenues available to us to hold the military accountable and make affected New Mexicans whole again,” Kenney said in a statement.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said it was “unacceptable” that the U.S. Air Force has not responded to state officials.

In December, the state Environment Department issued a notice of violation to the U.S. Air Force for failing to properly address groundwater contamination at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis.

Chemicals associated with firefighting foam once used at Cannon Air Force Base were detected in groundwater on and near the military installation.

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