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State settles pollution case with Cannon Air Force Base

Cannon Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force/WikiCommons)

The U.S. Air Force has agreed to pay a $251,000 fine to the state for failing to monitor cancer-causing pollution from its base near Clovis and letting that facility’s wastewater permit expire last year.

The fine was part of a compromise settlement for Cannon Air Force Base’s reported violations and is a steep reduction from the $1.7 million fine the state Environment Department imposed in January.

Cannon officials also agreed to monitor groundwater near the base for PFAS, the carcinogenic substances military bases have discharged for years across the country.

The Air Force has routinely used a potent type of firefighting foam containing PFAS, both at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

“Unfortunately, federal facilities in New Mexico have a history of disregarding state environmental laws,” state Environment Secretary James Kenney said in a statement. “U.S. Department of Defense facilities must comply with permitting requirements to protect our groundwater that New Mexicans rely on for drinking water and agriculture.”

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no drinking water limit for PFAS. It has established a lifetime health advisory level for two chemicals in the PFAS group — known as PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion, which means there may be adverse effects if the chemicals are ingested above this threshold for many years.

The settlement doesn’t affect the lawsuit the the state Attorney General’s Office filed against the Air Force last year after groundwater samples in Clovis and Alamogordo showed chemical levels hundreds of times higher than federal health advisory limits.

A permit established in 2014 allows Cannon to release 1.5 million gallons of wastewater a day to its treatment plant and a 14-septic tank leach field.

Last year, the Air Force didn’t respond to the Environment Department’s repeated requests to amend its discharge permit to include PFAS monitoring and instead let the permit lapse, the agency said.

In January, the Air Force submitted plans for a revised permit renewal — which included how it would monitor PFAS — two weeks after it was fined $1.7 million, the agency said.

That was viewed as a good-faith effort and led to a reduced fine during negotiations, according to the settlement agreement.

The Air Force’s revised draft permit will be available for public review and comment later this year.

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