Cannon Air Force Base ducking public meetings about ‘forever chemical’ risk, neighbors say

PFAS contamination resulted in the deaths of thousands of cattle and could be a problem for more of the state’s dairies and farms

By: - August 11, 2022 4:30 am

This feedlot sits empty at the Highland Dairy near Clovis on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. Thousands of Art Schaap’s cows were euthanized due to PFAS contamination, and he’s still seeking answers from Air Force Base officials. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Dairy farmers and advocates near Cannon Air Force Base say officials there are stonewalling their call for transparency and more public forums to discuss PFAS contamination. 

In October 2018, representatives from the military base just outside of Clovis approached Art Schaap, a dairy farmer on more than 3,500 acres adjoining the base, and told him that they’d detected per- and polyfluorakyl substances in the water he used to sustain 5,200 cows. Known as “PFAS” and deemed “forever chemicals,” the substances are linked with various cancers in people and do not break down naturally. They are often found in the fire-fighting foam used regularly since the 1970s on military bases for firefighter training and to suppress fuel fires.

Because of the contamination, Schaap had to euthanize several thousand of his cows, and others died soon after. He’s not sold a single gallon of milk or cut of beef since 2018, and the contamination has destroyed the fourth-generation farmer’s livelihood, he said. The corpses of the animals are still on his property covered in plastic, he said, because he can’t find any agency or company that will accept and safely dispose of them.

There are other dairies adjacent to Cannon Air Force Base, and the state Environment Department and U.S. Department of Defense have since battled on several fronts about how to remediate the PFAS and also determine the extent of contamination. That includes litigation in federal court and also an effort by Cannon to receive a discharge permit from the Water Quality Control Commission. 

And members of the public have continually sought answers from the Cannon, which they said are lacking. 

“We are getting stonewalled,” Schaap said Friday at a Clovis meeting of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, a bipartisan legislative committee made up of state representatives and senators. “The Air Force and Department of Defense seem to have a total disregard for our family and our community and our employees and business. This farm has been the blood-life for my family and for many hard-working employees that lived and worked on the farm.”

Experts testify before the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee at a Clovis civic center on Friday. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

The committee invited Department of Defense officials to attend the Clovis meeting, though none accepted the invite, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces). 

Base leaders and the Air Force Civil Engineering Center hold quarterly meetings with the public, though those sessions have been held virtually. And the most recent meeting devolved into chaos and ended abruptly, according to both advocates and a base spokesperson. 

“On June 15, 2022, AFCEC was hosting a quarterly community call regarding ongoing PFAS remediation efforts at Cannon AFB when an individual assumed the identities of multiple meeting participants in a malicious effort to cause disruption,” a spokesperson told Source New Mexico. “The disrespectful comments and harassing images communicated by the unidentified individual resulted in the immediate end to the meeting.”

John Kern, executive director for the advocacy group Clean Water Partnership – Cannon, attended the meeting. He said the meeting was “hacked” by an unknown individual with no apparent explanation, followed by an abrupt ending. The “hacker” also shared “risque” images, he said. 

Afterward, he emailed the base public affairs staff to ask for an in-person meeting, which he said would improve dialogue. 

“Given the improvement in the COVID 19 situation in Curry County…and the disastrous presentation of the last quarterly meeting on the internet-based call, we hereby request that the Public Affairs Office schedule its next meeting as a public forum — one in which the members of the public may participate in person,” he wrote in an email he provided to Source New Mexico. 

But the base said it would not be offering a public forum like Kern described any time soon. 

“(Cannon’s Colonel Terrence) Taylor has indicated he will not expose members and families of Cannon AFB in any forum where there is the possibility of harassment or ridicule,” the spokesperson told Kern in an email. “He believes the events of the last PFAS update showed there are some who have little-to-no respect for the discussions or our folks.”

The spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for more comment from Source New Mexico for more details of the disruption, including whether it was caused by an advocate or an outside hacker and what the images might have depicted. 

Video from the aborted meeting has not yet been made publicly available. 

The base spokesperson did say, however, that the base is taking PFAS seriously. It has spent $32 million to investigate the scope of the contamination and is studying what it will take to remediate the impact. The quarterly meetings also include farmers and state and federal regulators, the spokesperson noted. 

Cannon is home to the 27th Special Operations Wing of the United States Air Force and is a major economic driver for the city and region. It employs about 6,000 people and had an economic impact of $910 million in 2016, according to a recent presentation to a legislative committee. 

The PFAS contamination hasn’t only affected Schaap’s operation, known as Highland Dairy. Other dairies nearby, already facing economic headwinds from inflation and supply-chain issues, are battling fears of tainted products, even if they have tested and found no PFAS in their water supply. 

“The damage has been done. We’ve noticed a drop in our sales,” said Traci van der Ploeg, a dairy farmer and daughter of two Air Force veterans. “And a lot of our customers have lost trust in our product. And that’s really hard for us because anybody here in the dairy industry knows that we pride ourselves on the safety of our product.”

PFAS in soil, water or air can be absorbed by plants and animals, and lead to contaminated foods, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Kidney and testicular cancer are linked to PFAS, as is higher cholesterol and a reduced immune response, among other ailments

Van der Ploeg, who spoke up during the public comment period, said she and other dairies risked losing their livelihoods if governments don’t act. 

Steinborn, the committee chair, used the opportunity to again criticize the Defense Department for missing the hearing. 

“I do think that we’re all going to have to work together so that we can deal with this very real problem,” he said. “And I urge the Department of Defense to come to the table now for the good of the community.”

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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