New Mexico governor says EPA fails to protect public health

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Updated 2:37 pm PDT, Monday, August 5, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect public health and the environment by not helping with a legal battle against the U.S. Air Force over contamination at two military installations in her state.

The governor took aim at the federal agency in a letter sent Friday to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. She referred to a commitment he made during a congressional hearing earlier this year to provide legal and technical assistance.

The agency in a letter sent to state officials in July said it wasn’t permitted to take legal action against another federal department or agency.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to not do everything under its current enforcement authorities — whether judicial or administrative — is inconsistent with its mission to protect public health and the environment,” Lujan Grisham wrote.

The state in July had asked for the agency to pursue enforcement against the U.S. Defense Department for contamination at Cannon and Holloman air bases.

The state sued in April, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities. The contamination is linked to chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Similar contamination has been found at military sites across the nation, and growing evidence that exposure can be dangerous has prompted the EPA to consider setting a maximum level for the chemicals in drinking water nationwide.

Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney argue that the EPA has issued compliance orders in numerous other cases involving federal agencies or departments in which contamination resulted in violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

They pointed to a case in which the U.S. Army was required to deal with contamination from chemicals at the former Fort Gillem base in Georgia. The compliance order in that case called for drinking water wells and springs in the area to be tested.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the state Environment Department recently filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction to require regular groundwater and surface water sampling as the PFAS case proceeds.

The Air Force has argued its response to the contamination in New Mexico and elsewhere has been aggressive. Officials have said they’ve been working with regulators to identify and implement long-term solutions to prevent exposure.

In the letter to New Mexico officials, the EPA said it has committed “substantial assistance” to New Mexico and other states to help address the challenges related to PFAS contamination.

The agency also said it has been in regular contact with state regulators to provide technical assistance, such as help with groundwater modeling. It also has participated in public meetings and has provided fact sheets on remediation tactics.

Lujan Grisham wrote that fact sheets and webinars won’t be enough to “compel the U.S. Air Force to take responsibility” for determining the scope of the contamination and protecting the nearby communities of Clovis and Alamogordo.