Cannon PFAS destroyed the Clovis dairy a long time ago

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Art Schaap, owner of Highland Dairy in Clovis, looks at exposed cow bones while standing at the site where thousands of his dead cows are rotting under compost. Schaap had to euthanize his cows after drinking contaminated water from Cannon Air Force Base. Cannon officials said their “hands were tied.” (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

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Art Schaap remembers the day in 2018 when people from Cannon Air Force Base knocked on his front door and demanded to test his water. The Clovis dairy farmer had seen Airmen use fire-fighting foam during training exercises. But he soon learned that toxic chemicals from that moss had leaked from the base into groundwater beneath his earth. “That’s when the nightmare began,” he said.

In the years that followed, Schaap found himself unable to sell the contaminated milk or meat from the cows.

He was forced to euthanize what remains of Highland Dairy’s 3,665 animals.

“I lost so much money, I don’t know if I can restart,” Schaap said.

The farmer said the Air Force’s actions since the pollution began do not “demonstrate integrity” and said his family had “got nothing” from the military base.

The state’s Department of Environment accused the Department of Defense of letting Schaap and the regional dairy industry “hold the bag.”

But Air Force officials say their hands are tied.

Today, the fourth-generation dairy farmer is faced with a new problem: disposing of thousands of contaminated cow carcasses.

Clovis dairy farmer Art Schaap shows a picture on his phone of his thousands of dead cows he had to euthanize after drinking water contaminated with toxic chemical foams from nearby Cannon Air Force Base. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico is suing the Department of Defense for pollution.

The state agency says the contamination at Air Force Bases Cannon and Holloman poses “imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, can cause certain types of cancers, high cholesterol, and low birth weight.

“Forever chemicals” that build up in the bloodstream were once common in nonstick and waterproofing products.

The New Mexico litigation has stalled in federal court along with other lawsuits against the PFAS.

Environment Secretary Jim Kenney said the state and farmers like Schaap must navigate the cleanup.

“We take full responsibility,” Kenney said. “From scientific and engineering modeling of the PFAS plume moving through Clovis, to evaluating how to clean it up, to testing people’s water, public and private water supplies, to educating the community on PFAS exposures.”

Get rid of dead cows

Shortly after the Air Force notified Schaap of the contamination, state and federal agencies said milk and cow meat from the dairy should be removed from the market because PFAS levels in the animals exceeded health advisories.

Schaap added filters to groundwater wells and replaced contaminated feed.

But he was already too late.

He was excluded from livestock auctions.

He spent millions of dollars feeding animals that ended up dying.

He will probably never get another contract to ship milk from the dairy southeast of Cannon.

State estimates put the farm’s lost revenue and increased expenses at more than $5.9 million.

The United States Department of Agriculture offers monthly payments to producers who have had to withdraw milk from the market due to chemical contamination.

New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte helped push the USDA to extend this program beyond the original 18-month limit.

Highland Dairy worked with state agencies to develop a plan to dispose of thousands of dead cows as part of the USDA funding process.

“We don’t want to put that (PFAS) back into the soil and groundwater,” Kenney said.

A Cannon Air Force Base aircraft prepares to land at Clovis Air Force Base. Thousands of Art Schapp’s Highland Dairy cows were euthanized after drinking contaminated groundwater that had migrated from the base. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Schaap placed the animals in a shallow trench on the farm – with a view of the airbase in the distance.

State agencies will help test decomposed cattle to find the best final option.

Levels of PFAS in the soil and water at the disposal site could require Schaap to move the animals again to a hazardous waste landfill.

NMED has allocated $850,000 from an emergency fund for cow disposal.

“The Department of Defense caused the contamination, the pollution, the poisoning of this herd,” Kenney said. “They have a legal, if not legal, certainly ethical responsibility to help or pay for (Schaap’s) expenses.”

The state continues to test milk at nearby dairies.

Slow progress

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last fall announced a “roadmap” to study PFAS contamination nationwide and hold polluters accountable.

Part of that process is determining whether the agency will set a maximum contaminant level for chemicals, said EPA Region 6 senior project manager Greg Lyssy.

A legally enforceable standard would regulate toxins in drinking water.

The EPA has begun testing water systems for nearly 30 PFAS compounds.

“We’re trying to collect more information across the country on how much PFAS is available – what the levels are,” he said.

But the federal agency did not list the chemicals as hazardous waste. A drinking water standard would not come into effect until at least the end of 2023.

Air Force officials say that limits their cleanup efforts.

Christipher Gierke, remediation project manager at the Air Force Civil Engineering Center, said a pilot aquifer pumping and treatment project could begin construction this summer.

“That’s what (we) can legally spend taxpayers’ money on based on the requirements that currently exist,” Gierke said.

A $16.6 million project will use three extraction wells and six injection wells to test the treatment of the contamination plume that flowed southeast of Cannon.

Gierke said the test will inform long-term cleaning solutions.

The Air Force is awaiting lab results from soil and groundwater samples on and off base.

The data will help Cannon decide locations for off-base groundwater monitoring wells.

“I’m part of this community and I live here, and that’s why I work so hard to try to move this investigation forward, because I understand the impact it has on the local community,” Gierke said.

Even so, the Air Force maintains that current federal regulations prevent the Department of Defense from addressing anything other than human water consumption issues.

Four years ago, the Air Force began providing bottled water and filtration systems to Schaap’s family and other residents affected by the plume.

Highland Dairy spent $200,000 to install a filter on the livestock water supply. The Air Force was unable to help with livestock watering.

“We found that it takes years to clear PFAS from cows’ bodies and it’s just not a quick fix,” Schaap said.

In December, the farmer met Col. Terence Taylor, who became commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon last summer.

Art Schaap stands inside an empty milking barn on his Clovis farm. He was forced to euthanize his dairy cows. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Schaap praised state agencies and U.S. lawmakers for helping his company through a years-long crisis.

But he said his experience with military officials was “like talking to a brick wall”.

“For me, we got nothing from Cannon Air Force Base,” Schaap said. “The only reason they came to visit us was for political reasons and for a photo shoot.”

The farmer said the base’s water treatment pilot project was a “waste of time”.

“I think if we can take the cleanup project away from the military and put it in the hands of locals or some other agency for the cleanup, I think we’ll do a lot better,” Schaap said.

Taylor acknowledged that federal timelines don’t always correspond to an urgent solution desired by the community.

“We are all interested in making sure we have clean, drinkable water for everyone’s health and well-being,” Taylor said in September. “We are not looking for ways to stop progress. In fact, we try to speed things up as best we can.

And after

Kenney said the EPA roadmap puts “teeth on policy” that “didn’t move very quickly under the previous administration.”

“Now it’s moving fast, although from a state perspective it’s still not fast enough,” he said. “This is not a criticism, but we are dealing with PFAS contamination in a non-theoretical way.”

Curry County Commissioner and Clovis farmer Seth Martin said he understands the Army’s need for a “data-driven process” to clean up the plume.

“But what’s happening now is that it continues to devastate agriculture in this area,” Martin said.

As for Schaap, the best option might be to move dairy operations.

Its real estate values ​​plummeted. All that’s left of the dairy are the rotting cows.

“There are farms there, but moving is very expensive right now because land and building materials are so expensive,” he said. “We have no idea where we will go.”

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