In August 2018, Clovis, New Mexico, dairy farmer Art Schaap was notified that his water wells were contaminated with toxins known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The chemicals were traced back to contamination from the Cannon U.S. Air Force base just down the road from his Highland Dairy in Curry County. Because of the PFAS contamination, Schaap has been forced to dump 15,000 gallons of milk a day and will destroy 4,000 head of his cows, according to reports.
His story recently made the news rounds again, this time outside of New Mexico, because Schaap’s dairy uses water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers up and down the Ogallala are now raising concerns that this could spread through the aquifer to their backdoors.
So, just what are PFAS? And can they become mobile through the vast Ogallala Aquifer?
Senior Regulatory and Environmental Specialist James P. Bearzi with Glorieta Geoscience, Inc., a Santa Fe, New Mexico, company that works for several dozen dairies in New Mexico and other western states to provide environmental sampling, compliance, and consulting for dairy farmers. Glorieta also provides specialized consulting services with water rights, contaminant studies, government relations and litigation support.
“For our agricultural clients, we help with obtaining environmental permits and developing nutrient monitoring plans, land application and monitoring of groundwater,” Bearzi explained. Primarily, though, an environmental consulting firm like Glorieta navigates governmental and regulatory agencies, helping its clients, like dairy farmers and feedlots, stay in compliance.
Bearzi couldn’t weigh in on the Highland Dairy case, due to the ongoing litigation. He referred any specific questions regarding the Highland Dairy to their law firm.
Bearzi could provide insight into PFAS and environmental challenges to agriculture in the Clovis area and beyond.
“More than 80 percent of New Mexicans rely on groundwater for their drinking water,” he explained. New Mexico is home to three major U.S. Air Force bases and more than 300 formerly used Department of Defense sites that range from the former Walker AFB in Roswell to decommissioned Atlas Missile Silos from the 1960s.
The first thing is to understand that although we hear mainly about “PFOS” and “PFOA,” these chemicals are part of a larger family of man-made chemicals known as “PFAS” (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) characterized by carbon-fluorine bonds, he said.
“These are among the strongest bonds known to science,” he said. “They don’t easily break down. They are resistant to heat, water and solvents.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS have been manufactured and used in the United States and around the globe since the 1940s. PFAS can be found in manufacturing, commercial household products like Teflon, cleaning products and in fire-fighting foams like those used at U.S. Air Force bases, like Cannon AFB, where training occurs.
“The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy were big users of PFAS,” Bearzi said. “The Air Force has over 120 facilities in the country where contamination has been documented.” Airmen at Cannon would dig unlined pits in the ground, fill them with jet fuel and combustibles, ignite them and then practice putting out these fires with fire-fighting foam and water. Those compounds filtered through the soil and down to the water table, migrating along buried channels in the Ogallala Aquifer, the main water source in the Clovis area.
“If you’re a farmer, you want your well to be in the most productive place as possible, and that’s right where these channels are the thickest with the deepest bottom,” Bearzi explained. “Turns out, that’s also where any pollution introduced would be more likely to concentrate and flow.”
PFAS have been phased out in many applications voluntarily over the last decade or so in the United States. The toxicology of these substances in accumulations is pretty established, Bearzi said. Most of that research has centered on humans who have directly ingested PFAS in water—there is much less scientific literature on the effects on livestock.
This is key to understanding the risk posed to agriculture. Although almost all Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood, those levels have declined steadily over the last decade since the substances were phased out in manufacturing. And that’s good news because it means the effects, to some degree, can be reversed in humans and animals.
But there are many different “exposure pathways” to consider in agriculture settings, Bearzi said, including the following:
• Human drinking;
• Human bathing or clothes washing;
• Crop irrigation that is then consumed for food or feed;
• Animal drinking;
• Consumption of milk or milk products from cows that consumed the water; or
• Consumption of meat from animals exposed to PFAS.
Bearzi said some literature shows cows that consumed PFAS-contaminated water will give milk with concentrations between a tenth to a half of that. While that reduction factor could be a ray of hope, neither EPA nor FDA have set standards for what is safe in water, milk, or food.
“Without actual testing of cow tissue and milk, you’re just guessing, though,” Bearzi said. And above all, science and actual data should be the deciding factor if any livestock are quarantined or destroyed, he emphasized.
That also goes for concerns about any meat or milk that might have gone into the food chain, Bearzi added.
“The farm products and commodities being marketed from the Clovis area meet every standard out there,” he said. “The milk and milk products are safe.”
Farmers have been concerned with reports that this pollution could spread throughout the rest of the Ogallala Aquifer. Bearzi said that would be nearly impossible. While the water in the Ogallala does in fact flow in a southeasterly direction from Cannon Air Force Base, the PFAS would likely be diluted below detection limits after some distance.
“Glorieta is working closely with all the dairies within a few miles of Cannon AFB to ensure their water and milk is safe,” he said. “Farmers beyond that should not have concerns, particularly if the Air Force steps up to do the right thing to address the contamination. Certainly if you’re across the state line, this isn’t a problem.” Generally, the Ogallala can be particularly vulnerable to contamination in some areas because of the declining water table and slow recharge rates.
Geoffrey Rawling is a senior field geologist for Curry County, with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, and his career has centered on the Ogallala Aquifer in and around Clovis. He has mapped the basic hydrogeology, extent and natural thickness of the water in the aquifer and has headed up a study to predict the usable lifetime of the Ogallala under Clovis.
He’s quite familiar with the Ogallala Aquifer, to say the least.
“The description I use of the Ogallala Aquifer in general is picture a big shallow bathtub full of sand and gravel and bedrock and hard rocks,” Rawling said. “There are spaces in the sand and gravel, pores, and the farther east you go, the thicker the Ogallala is. Around Clovis it varies from tens of feet thick to hundreds, 300 to 500 feet thick in spots.” The water quality around Clovis is overall really good, he said, and that’s attributed to the material that makes up the aquifer.
In short, Rawling said what’s happened in the Clovis area in regard to Cannon AFB’s pollution will not flow to more parts of the aquifer.
“The aquifer itself is complicated in the way that water flows,” he said. Generally, the flow can be described as a southeasterly to easterly direction, with New Mexico the farthest western edge of the aquifer.
This particular episode of contamination is concerning because unlike a gasoline leak from an old gas tank, or other common contaminants like nitrates, PFAS require a lot more complex cleanup methods. That means it’s going to take a lot of money to fix, Rawling predicted.
The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the nation’s most precious resources because it accounts for so much of our agricultural production and is the water supply for millions of people, he said.
“It’s one of the untold stories in the United States just how important the Ogallala is to the whole country,” Rawling said. “Clovis was already in a bind because of the rate of the decline of the aquifer. In some places there are tens of feet disappearing per year.” The last thing we want to do, he added, is add pollution to the battle that agriculture and municipalities are waging to keep the aquifer viable.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.