New Mexico delegates demand help to clean contaminated water

CLOVIS, N.M. (AP) — Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation on Wednesday demanded the U.S. Defense Department help with drinking water cleanup in eastern New Mexico after traces of a cancer-causing pollutant were found in some wells.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich along with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, saying they were disturbed by the recent findings and expected the agency to take immediate action to protect citizens and the water supply.

The company in charge of Clovis’ water system found contaminants in 10 of its 82 wells at the point where the water would be piped to households. The utility immediately took the affected wells out of service.

"The appearance of these chemicals in these wells is a significant — and very unfortunate — development, particularly since the city of Clovis anticipates the need to restart the wells later in the year to meet seasonal demands,” the lawmakers wrote.

New Mexico is in a legal battle with the U.S. government over plumes at two military installations that contain chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities. The contamination at Cannon and Holloman air bases is linked to chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Similar contamination has been found at dozens of military sites across the nation. Growing evidence that exposure can be dangerous has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider setting new standards.

Air Force officials have said that they have been working with regulators to identify and implement long-term solutions to prevent exposure.

The discovery of PFAS in Clovis’ treated water comes a month after the state Environment Department fined the Air Force almost $1.7 million for failing to monitor the contaminants discharged at Cannon and for letting its wastewater permit expire.

The Clovis water utility recently informed residents there was no health concern with the traces found in the 10 wells but officials decided to take the wells offline as a precaution. The utility said none of the samples was close to the federal health advisory level.

The Environment Department is seeking $1.2 million from the state Legislature to map the contamination and develop cleanup strategies. Other legislation would allocate $700,000 to the agency to conduct water well testing in affected communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

New Mexico's congressional delegates said in their letter that they expect the Defense Department to contribute to the effort and open up all lines of communication with the state despite the ongoing litigation.

“Delays that allow the plume to continue to spread will only increase the scope of the long-term problem and costs to state, local and federal taxpayers,” they wrote.

The Defense Department already has expended over $200 million in environmental investigations and responses at or near installations where drinking water has been contaminated by PFAS, according to the lawmakers.