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What Do We Know About The Holloman Groundwater Contamination?

Airman B. Snyder via The National Archives Catalogue
public domain
Airmen from the base fire protection branch extinguish a simulated aircraft fire during a training exercise.

Holloman Air Force Base is the site of some incredibly high levels of groundwater contamination. Laura Paskus broke the story for NMPoliticalReport.com this week.

Kevin MacDonald of our media partner New Mexico PBS asked her his top questions in a Facebook Live chat on Wednesday. 

A site inspection report is just the very beginning of an analysis of the groundwater contamination at the base, she said, and the New Mexico Environment Department wants to know whether nearby wells in Alamogordo that draw from the same brackish groundwater are used for irrigation, industry or potable water.  

Here's a excerpt from that conversation. 

NMPBS: Let’s start with the big one, how bad is the situation at Holloman, what did you find out?

Paskus: It’s pretty bad. It turns out that there’s some groundwater contamination below Holloman Air Force Base and a few years ago the EPA set standards for these human-made substances – the whole class of compounds is called PFAS – at 70 parts per trillion for lifetime human exposure. The levels down below Holloman are 18,000 times that recommended lifetime… [NMPBS – something like 1.5 million per unit, right?] … yeah, 1.294 million parts per trillion.

NMPBS: That is amazing. I guess the big question that everybody wants to know is, was Holloman aware of this and for how long and do we know that?

Paskus: To back up a little bit, a few years ago the Department of Defense started looking at its bases nationwide to see where there might have been exposure to this firefighting foam that has the PFAS in it. Then they started doing site inspections to see if the chemical could have been released there, has it gotten into the groundwater or the soil. And so they started doing these site inspections and - 

NMPBS: And were they compelled to do that?

Paskus: They were compelled to do that.

NMPBS: Real quick, before we get into the health risks, we wanted to make sure that everybody understands, this is a very different situation than what we know and what you’ve reported at Kirtland [Air Force Base], right?

Paskus: That’s right, it’s totally different types of contamination and pathways.

NMPBS: That was a leak of jet fuel there at Kirtland and this, again, best we can tell, they have this special retardant for specifically petroleum fires that they do training with all of the time and that’s a known source of these PFAS contaminants.

Paskus: They’re part of a family of human made compounds that were manufactured beginning in the 1970’s. In the U.S., most of them have been phased out over the last decade or so. But the same family also includes the chemical – if you remember news reports from a few years ago – that was in Teflon, so it’s that same family of human-made compounds.

NMPBS: I guess that’s another question is, why would anybody still be using any of these things if we know this, but, there’s not any rules or regulations in place.

Paskus: They are persistent, these compounds stay in the ecosystem, in the water, for a really long time. They travel through the groundwater, but they also bioaccumulate. They move up the food chain. Even if we get rid of them, if we stop making them, we stop using them, if they’re present in the environment, they’re persistent.

NMPBS: So, 18,000 times the acceptable levels. What kind of health risks are we talking about from what’s going on at Holloman?

Paskus: PFAS, they’re what’s considered and emerging contaminant, so we’re still learning about them, they’re still being studied. But among the health impacts that the government and researchers and scientists understand is, they’re related to certain types of cancers, certain types of complications with pregnancy and birth defects, also liver disease. There’s a wide range of pretty serious health impacts.

NMPBS: And do we know what kind of danger the folks at Holloman have been put under, then?

Paskus: According to the site inspection report, the tests where PFAS was found are from groundwater wells below Holloman. And that groundwater supply according to the report is not used for drinking water, it’s brackish water, right now it’s not a drinking water source for anyone, according to the site inspection report.

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.