ALAMOGORDO, New Mexico — New Mexico is challenging a decision by a federal court to combine the state’s lawsuit over contamination at Holloman and Cannon U.S. Air Force bases with similar litigation brought by hundreds of other jurisdictions around the country.
The New Mexico attorney general’s office and the state Environment Department announced they have filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals to keep the case separate. They argue that the previous court decision to centralize the claims was a violation of the state’s sovereignty and could result in extreme delays that have the potential to further endanger public health and the environment.
New Mexico sued the Air Force in 2019 over groundwater contamination at Holloman and Cannon air bases, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities. The contamination is linked to a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The state in court documents describes the contamination detected at Holloman and Cannon as shocking, saying it migrated offsite into public and private wells that provide drinking water and livestock and irrigation water to the surrounding communities. The state said New Mexico's dairy industry has been affected along with residential and commercial property values.
“What is at stake is the health and livelihood of New Mexico families – families that just want the Defense Department to do the right thing and get PFAS out of their lives and communities for good,” said James Kenney, head of the state Environment Department.
If the petition is granted, state officials say the case would be transferred from the U.S. District of South Carolina to the federal court in New Mexico, clearing the way for a motion to move forward that seeks to force the government to start cleaning up.
Similar contamination has been found at dozens of military sites across the nation, and growing evidence that exposure can be dangerous has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider setting a maximum level for the chemicals in drinking water nationwide. Currently only non-enforceable drinking water health advisories are in place.
Meanwhile, New Mexico officials said they will continue using state resources to investigate the extent of the contamination around Alamogordo and Clovis.
During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers set aside $1 million for the Environment Department to begin addressing the contamination in the two communities. As a result, a contract was issued in early January to begin studying the size and movement of the groundwater plumes there. The work also will determine whether and to what extent nearby public water systems and wildlife are affected.
Officials said the work must be done before any clean-up efforts can begin.
A sampling effort of numerous other public drinking water sources around the state also is underway as part of a partnership with the Environment Department and the U.S. Geological Survey. It started in mid-2020 and will continue through mid-2021.
Samples are being collected from sites in 19 counties, including at existing surface water gauges and groundwater wells based on their proximity to known or potential sources of PFAS contamination. So far, state officials said the data does not indicate any imminent public health threats.