(Tribune News Service) — Chemical compounds linked to cancer were detected in five wells in the La Cienega and La Cieneguilla communities south of Santa Fe, with the likely source being a nearby National Guard facility where the same pollutants were found in February.

Three of the wells contain PFAS levels that exceed what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe. Santa Fe County officials and area residents are concerned the toxic chemicals could have seeped into anyone’s wells.

PFAS is short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, dubbed “forever chemicals” because they take thousands of years to break down and last indefinitely in a person’s bloodstream.

They have been linked to high blood pressure in pregnant women, low birth weight in infants, thyroid problems and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

“None of us ever thought Santa Fe would be a hot spot for this,” said Michelle Hunter, the county’s water resources manager.

The Army National Guard conducted tests at its aviation support facility near the Santa Fe Regional Airport early this year and found that, like hundreds of military installations throughout the U.S., the firefighting foam used in training had contaminated groundwater with PFAS. The Guard compiled a 320-page report in February.

National Guard officials were unable to immediately issue an official statement about the PFAS findings.

When county officials learned of the pollution in April, they looked for six wells to test in the nearby communities, Hunter said, noting the wells they chose were within a mile of where the National Guard detected its plume.

Of those wells, five were tainted with PFAS and three exceeded EPA’s health advisory levels, Hunter said. A bright side was the chemicals so far haven’t infiltrated the central production well for La Cienega’s Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, which means the chemicals’ spread was limited.

And the results don’t apply to the city or county of Santa Fe’s water systems, where recent tests found no PFAS, according to a county news release.

The contamination also appeared confined mostly to the two communities’ west side, though that could affect dozens of wells, Hunter said. In anticipation of the positive test results, the county applied for a state grant to further investigate how extensive the area’s contamination is, and it recently received $459,000 from the Environment Department for the effort.

Caroline Knapp, an area resident, said she’s certain her groundwater is contaminated because she lives next to a well that has high-level PFAS pollution.

“It’s devastating,” Knapp said. “It is an utter gut punch. Just horrifying that this has been allowed to happen.”

Some residents plan to express their concerns and anger about this grim revelation at Tuesday’s Santa Fe County Commission meeting, Knapp said.

One of the things she cherished when she moved here from California three years ago was how clean and delicious her well water tasted, seemingly so pure it didn’t need to be filtered, she said.

That turned out to be a cruel deception, Knapp said.

County officials are putting together a plan that will include testing more wells and ultimately cleaning up the pollutants, Hunter said. Although the National Guard caused the contamination, the county will tackle the cleanup rather than wait for the military to run through its lengthy and bureaucratic process of funding remediation, she said.

The county will have to accept the military’s reimbursement for the work when it comes, Hunter said.

“Right now,” she added, “it’s up to us.”

PFAS are increasingly turning up in public drinking water, private wells and food throughout the country. These chemicals are so widespread they have been detected in the blood of virtually every American who has been tested for them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The EPA has known about the risks from PFAS since at least the 1990s. Recently, the agency has toughened its PFAS standards, which includes lowering the allowable levels in drinking water.

At the same time, the EPA and the Defense Department have increased PFAS testing in and around U.S. military bases, finding more than 700 that could be contaminated.

In New Mexico, Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases in the Clovis and Alamogordo areas, respectively, have had the highest-profile PFAS contamination of groundwater.

The state is locked in litigation with the military over Cannon’s PFAS blight. Meanwhile, Holloman’s leaders contend testing showed their PFAS pollution is directly under the base and isn’t flowing toward any neighboring communities.

In Santa Fe, the National Guard limited its testing to the immediate area around the site, with no apparent plans to fan out farther to check for the chemicals, Hunter said.

“I believe if Santa Fe County hadn’t looked, we wouldn’t know for years,” Hunter said.

Everyone in the La Cienega area should err on the side of caution and filter their water, she said, adding carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems work well in removing PFAS.

The Environmental Working Group recommends these simple, low-cost filters, two of which are similar to Brita water pitchers.

However, there has yet to be a confirmed medical treatment developed to purge the forever chemicals from the body.

Knapp said that’s what is so distressing about ingesting an unsafe amount of PFAS for years.

“Our water and our health have both been irreversibly, permanently damaged,” Knapp said.

(c)2023 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

(New Mexico National Guard)

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