‘This has poisoned everything’ – pollution casts shadow over New Mexico’s booming dairy industry
For months, Clovis, New Mexico, dairy farmer Art Schaap has been watching his life go down the drain. Instead of selling milk, he is dumping 15,000 gallons a day – enough to provide a carton at lunch to 240,000 children. Instead of working 24/7 to keep his animals healthy, he’s planning to exterminate all 4,000 of his cows, one of the best herds in his county’s booming dairy industry.
The 54-year-old second-generation dairy farmer learned last August that his water, his land, his crops – even the blood in his body – were contaminated with chemicals that migrated to his property from nearby Cannon air force base.This story is published in collaboration with Searchlight New Mexico. Photograph: SLNM
The toxins, collectively known as PFAS, have caused rampant pollution on military installations, something the Department of Defense (DoD) has known about for decades but routinely failed to disclose. Now New Mexico’s dairy industry is ground zero in an unprecedented crisis. For the first time ever, PFAS is threatening the US food supply.‘This has poisoned everything I’ve worked for and everything I care about,’ said dairy farmer Art Schaap. Photograph: Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico
“This has poisoned everything I’ve worked for and everything I care about,” Schaap said. “I can’t sell the milk. I can’t sell beef. I can’t sell the cows. I can’t sell crops or my property. The air force knew they had contamination. What I really wonder is, why didn’t they say something?”
There is plenty the air force could have said. It has for decades been aware that PFAS chemicals are toxic to humans, animals and the environment. By 2000, industry scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency had meticulously documented that they persist in the environment for millennia. They are linked to cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, lowered immunity and high cholesterol, among other serious health problems.
They have poisoned the groundwater at 121 military bases across the US, the DoD disclosed in 2018. .
The contamination casts a very long shadow over New Mexico’s all-important dairy business – the leading agricultural industry in the state, generating more than $1.3bn annually. Curry county, where Schaap farms, is one of the nation’s top 20 counties for milk production. Home to 82,000 milk cows, it boasts 25 dairies that sell more than 1.9 billion pounds of milk around the country.
Schaap’s dairy is ground zero, but this may soon change. The toxic plume is spreading slowly and inexorably – not only under Schaap’s fields but across the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in the nation, which spans 174,000 miles and parts of eight states.
Based on more than a dozen interviews and an examination of more than 100 chemical studies, government reports and court cases, Searchlight New Mexico discovered that:
A July 2017 inspection by air force scientists found contamination near the Schaap dairy – an inspection that came eight years after the air force identified the need for such an inspection. That report specified evidence of at least 10 serious contamination sites where participants in air force training exercises had sprayed hundreds of gallons of PFAS-containing firefighting foam on the ground, in unlined ponds and storm drains, among other places.
The air force reported its findings to the New Mexico environment department (NMED), but not to the people living nearby.
NMED failed to notify nearby residents in 2017. More than a year later, it issued a notice of violation to the air force, which has refused to take corrective actions in response.
When the air force finally tested Schaap’s water on 28 August 2018, it was found to be so polluted that the military immediately began delivering bottled water to the family home. One of Schaap’s wells tested at 12,000 parts per trillion, or 171 times the EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt.
To date, there has been no definitive accounting of the harm done to the public health, food chain and economy in New Mexico, which are especially pointed in the air force communities of Clovis and Alamogordo.
“This is a national contamination crisis at this point, and we’ve really only scratched the surface in understanding how large of an impact it’s having on health, both in highly contaminated communities like Clovis and across our entire population,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, which leads a campaign to regulate the compounds.
The air force knew they had contamination. What I really wonder is, why didn't they say something?
The PFAS family contains thousands of compounds known as per- and polyflouroalkyl substances. The best-known are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), but scientists believe the more obscure varieties pose risks as well. These chemicals “seem to have the ability to harm an incredible number of different biological processes, and often at incredibly low concentrations”, Andrews said.
On 23 January, in Albuquerque, senator Tom Udall met with Schaap, four neighboring dairy farmers and representatives from the Dairy Producers of New Mexico. A long list of New Mexico lawmakers – from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to Congressman Ben Ray Luján and Senator Martin Heinrich – have taken up the cause.
Udall, Heinrich and other New Mexico lawmakers have called on the EPA to develop federal regulations and drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA, the chemicals that are front and center in the Clovis crisis.
The EPA on 14 February announced its intention to regulate the chemicals by year’s end, but the agency’s plan does not include immediate cleanup actions and has been widely criticized as foot-dragging.
The agency has failed for 20 years to regulate PFAS or any other new hazardous substance for drinking water, advocates have noted. In 2016, it issued a “lifetime health advisory” for PFOA and PFOS, recommending that individual or combined concentrations of the chemicals in drinking water should be no greater than 70 ppt.
Scientific research long ago established a link to serious health impacts, such as altered puberty, endocrine disruption, pregnancy disorders, lowered fertility and increased risk of cancers (liver, testicular, kidney and pancreatic).
“The situation is urgent,” Udall said. He and New Mexico’s Congressional delegation want the DoD to immediately start providing clean, safe water to affected farmers.
Though the NMED has known of the threat since at least 2017, it neglected to contact the community and its many dairy farmers. Milk was bought and sold, crossed state lines, mixed with that from other dairies, and consumed in vast quantities before Schaap’s Highland Dairy was informed of a problem.The milking facility at the Schaap’s Highland Dairy. Photograph: Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico
The thought of a contaminated milk supply horrifies Schaap. “It’s potentially been in the groundwater the whole time I’ve owned the dairy,” he said.
For years he watched from his fields as trainees at Cannon air force base set fire to mock airplanes and smothered the flames with clouds of PFAS-laced firefighting foam. The chemicals make the foam resistant to grease, water, dirt and heat, which makes it extremely effective at snuffing out jet-fuel fires.
The air force says it is going above and beyond to address the contamination.
“I really want to emphasize this: our focus is drinking water for human consumption – not for agriculture, not for anything else,” air force spokesman Mark Kinkade told Searchlight.
For Schaap, the impact is personal. He has already laid off 40 employees and is now preparing to euthanize his cattle. And he and his wife potentially face health problems, some of which could be life-threatening.
“I don’t care what they do, my property will never have the same value again,” Schaap said. “Who wants to live in a community with contaminated water?”