Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
'This is absolutely a corruption case' — New Mexico AG blasts Air Force over toxic water contamination at US bases
Months after suing the federal government over the discharge of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals that have tainted New Mexico's groundwater, Attorney General Hector Balderas now says he considers the lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force a public "corruption case."
"It's my position, looking at the entire set of facts, that this is not just an environmental battle for environmental cleanup," Balderas said during a phone interview Friday. "This is absolutely a corruption case, where a powerful federal entity needs to account to what have been very committed and loyal citizens in New Mexico.
"It's corruption and un-American," Balderas said, referring to chemical plumes of unknown size around bases in Southern and Eastern New Mexico — which critics say are putting residents, businesses and livestock at risk — and the Air Force's failure to remediate them.
Public corruption typically involves asking for or accepting something of value in return for something else, such as bribes, kickbacks or racketeering. Balderas' spokesman, Matt Baca, later clarified the Democratic attorney general is not planning to file any corruption charges against the Air Force and has no evidence to suggest any criminal wrongdoing. The legal filing from his office against the Air Force makes no corruption allegations.
"He just means that any time an entity, through misrepresentation or lack of accountability or transparency, negatively impacts our communities, it's his view that he sees those things through a corporate corruption lens, a public corruption lens," Baca said. "I think the focus for him is the abuse of power."
The lawsuit alleges the Air Force's discharges of toxic pollution over decades "have created an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment."
It seeks immediate injunctive relief to recover past and future costs associated with the environmental and public health risks related to PFAS pollution from Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases. It also asks the Air Force to clean up the pollution and alleges the federal government violated the state's hazardous waste laws.
The Air Force has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. It did not respond to inquiries Friday for comment.
Balderas' office is now waiting to hear back from a federal judge on how the case will proceed.
For years, the Air Force used a firefighting foam in routine training that contains chemicals now known to harm people. The foam has leached off bases into nearby aquifers, and now plumes of carcinogenic substances, abbreviated as PFAS, in Southern and Eastern New Mexico are moving at an unknown speed.
PFAS are a class of 5,000 chemicals known to increase the risk of cancer, impair childhood development, affect fertility and the immune system, and increase cholesterol levels, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They are found in everything from firefighting foam to fast-food wrappers, clothing, cosmetics, upholstery and nonstick cookware.
They have also been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they have some of the strongest known chemical bonds. "They don't break down" according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They accumulate in animal tissue over time.
The U.S. Department of Defense has known for at least three decades that PFAS chemicals can kill aquatic life and harm the environment. In 2011, the agency admitted the chemicals may have created a "crisis" of groundwater contamination at more than 400 military installations across the country, according to the lawsuit.
But state officials were not notified PFAS contamination was found in excess of federal health advisory standards until August 2018, New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney said during an interview Friday.
Testing results of nearby public water supplies in Clovis and Alamogordo did not find detectable PFAS levels, according to documents provided by the Environment Department.
The state Department of Health has tested 120 private wells, Kenney said, and those with PFAS levels that exceed the EPA advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion have received water filters.
But there could be people living near Clovis who have not heard about the contamination. Since private wells are not part of the public drinking water system, they're only tested if the property owner makes a request from the Health Department.
"We have people … who may have impacted wells in Clovis and do or don't know about it and are having to make a choice: 'Do I make my dinner with this water tonight?' That's the concern for us," Kenney said. "There are people drinking this water today."
PFAS had been used for more than 50 years at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis. The chemicals leached into the Ogallala Aquifer, the attorney general's lawsuit says.
The New Mexico Environment Department is asking the state Legislature for $1.2 million to cover the cost of mapping the extent of the contamination that has spread from the Cannon and Holloman bases. Environmental regulators do not yet know the extent of the contamination or the speed and direction in which the plumes are moving.
Balderas said he's seeking to remedy the issue against the backdrop of "generational and legacy harms" from other pollution — including uranium mining, nuclear weapons testing and nuclear waste, as well as other contamination from companies and agencies that have treated the state as "a dumping ground."
The attorney general criticized "leadership in past generations [that had been] slow to inform the general public of how dangerous these chemicals have been."
Balderas reiterated his frustration with the way Air Force officials have responded to PFAS pollution in New Mexico and the lawsuit. In addition to fighting cleanup efforts, he said, the military has been opaque and uncooperative.
"I've been appalled at how little the Air Force has moved to remediate and clean up and provide resources to the general communities that they've harmed," Balderas said. "I've lost my patience. With these environmental harms, you have aspects of corruption that we need to … aggressively and gladly litigate."
Balderas and Kenney said New Mexico, one of the first states to sue over PFAS contamination at military installations, could be paving a path for other states seeking the Air Force's cooperation in cleaning up pollution at hundreds of sites.
But cleanup, even if the suit is successful, could take years, said Charlie de Saillan, an attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Environmental Law Center. He has filed a legal brief on behalf of three New Mexico lawmakers in support of state efforts to compel the Air Force to pay for cleanup.
The Air Force has been uncooperative in other states as well, critics say. For example, a state geologist found PFAS contamination in a small northern Michigan town near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. The Air Force has tried to reassure local residents but still has no cleanup plan in place.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has said she's considering a lawsuit after years of stalling, Michigan-based Bridge Magazine reported.
"I think there is an amazing amount of state level advocacy … but there's a huge question about who's gonna pay for it," said Sonya Lunder, senior toxic policy adviser for the Sierra Club in Boulder, Colo.
"It's a scary position for states to be in right now," she said.
©2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
The Air Force's top general says one of the designers of the ride-sharing app Uber is helping the branch build a new data-sharing network that the Air Force hopes will help service branches work together to detect and destroy targets.
The network, which the Air Force is calling the advanced battle management system (ABMS), would function a bit like the artificial intelligence construct Cortana from Halo, who identifies enemy ships and the nearest assets to destroy them at machine speed, so all the fleshy humans need to do is give a nod of approval before resuming their pipe-smoking.
An F-15 is rocking a WWII paint job to honor a B-17 pilot who gave his life to save a wounded crewman
An F-15C Eagle is sporting a badass World War II-era paint job in honor of a fallen bomber pilot who gave everything to ensure his men survived a deadly battle.
A U.S. E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed on Monday on Afghanistan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has confirmed.
Beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday. Two days earlier, Army Spc. Antonio I. Moore was killed during a vehicle rollover accident while conducting route clearing operations in Syria.
Which one more deserves your grief and mourning? According to Maj. Gen. John R. Evans, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, you only have enough energy for one.
After 70 years, service members are finally filing medical malpractice claims against the US military
Jessica Purcell, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, was pregnant with her first child when she noticed a swollen lymph node in her left underarm.
Health-care providers at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic told her it was likely an infection or something related to pregnancy hormones. The following year they determined the issue had resolved itself.
It hadn't. A doctor off base found a large mass in her underarm and gave her a shocking diagnosis: stage 2 breast cancer.
Purcell was pregnant again. Her daughter had just turned 1. She was 35. And she had no right to sue for malpractice.
A 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres doctrine prohibits military members like Purcell from filing a lawsuit against the federal government for any injuries suffered while on active duty. That includes injury in combat, but also rape and medical malpractice, such as missing a cancer diagnosis.
Thanks in part to Tampa lawyer Natalie Khawam, a provision in this year's national defense budget allows those in active duty to file medical malpractice claims against the government for the first time since the Feres case.
With the Department of Defense overseeing the new claims process, the question now is how fairly and timely complaints will be judged. And whether, in the long run, this new move will help growing efforts to overturn the ruling and allow active duty members to sue like everyone else.