NM water commission goes into closed session to talk ‘forever chemicals,’ despite transparency concerns

By: - October 12, 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)

A board tasked with renewing a water discharge permit for the Cannon Air Force Base went into closed session for its deliberations Tuesday amid concerns about how often the public gets looped in on the base’s release of so-called “forever chemicals” into surrounding areas. 

The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission voted 7-3 to discuss the matter beyond the public’s view during its meeting Tuesday afternoon. The board was supposed to vote on an amended permit for the base, but after hours of private deliberation, decided to delay. 

Cannon officials are attempting to change the permit that allows the base to discharge waste into water sources. The base filed a petition in early 2021 to waive some state contaminant testing requirements, including for PFAS, arguing that Cannon follows federal regulations anyway.

Judge: Cannon Air Force Base is subject to NM’s hazardous waste laws

Members of the public in Clovis, where the base sits, have criticized leadership there for not offering many opportunities to hear from base officials about the release of PFAs. 

PFAs are per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals that don’t break down naturally and cause illness, including cancer. The chemical is often present in fire-fighting foams that are used on Air Force bases and can leak into groundwater.

A dairy farmer near Cannon had to euthanize several thousand cows after their drinking water was contaminated with PFAs.

At the meeting Tuesday, members of the commission cited a section of the Open Meetings Act that allows meetings to be held in executive session if they are “administrative adjudicatory proceedings.” Those are proceedings before a public body that are “brought by or against a person” to determine individual legal rights, duties and privileges after a trial-type hearing. 

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

Commission Counsel Robert Sanchez, in explaining the decision to discuss the issue in private, acknowledged that there wasn’t a “trial-type hearing” before the closed session. But there were oral arguments, he said. 

Another commissioner, Larrry Dominguez, said they sometimes vote to go into closed session for particularly controversial hearings. 

“Some commissioners tend to lean toward the public transparency aspect for deliberations. Other commissioners have tended to lean towards the side that if this body has really sticky issues before it and want to have an open and frank discussion that typically, people are more willing to speak up in executive session,” he said. 

But Commissioner Bruce Thomson said the issue merited being discussed openly. 

“I think that we’re a deliberative body that answers to the public, and I would prefer that we keep our comments available to them,” he said.

A board representative did not respond to a request for comment. 

About more than two hours into deliberations, the commission came back and voted unanimously to postpone a vote, allowing the New Mexico Water Quality Bureau to review new evidence and report back “promptly” to the board.


This story was updated on Oct. 17 at 8:30 a.m. to correctly reflect Robert Sanchez’s title.

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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.