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Military warns farmers nationwide about PFAS contamination that threatens their livelihood

Cows at Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico, have been impacted by leakage of toxic PFAS chemicals from a nearby military base (Photo: Joce Sterman){p}{/p}
Cows at Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico, have been impacted by leakage of toxic PFAS chemicals from a nearby military base (Photo: Joce Sterman)

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CLOVIS, New Mexico (SBG) — For years, Spotlight on America has been investigating contamination at military installations across the country, caused by the use of toxic firefighting foam that contains the so-called forever chemicals known as PFAS. As we've reported, cleanup is expected to take the Defense Department as long as 30 years, costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. But as the DoD struggles to find a way to fix the mess inside the fences of its bases, we discovered it's now warning neighboring farmers and agricultural operators whose livelihoods may be threatened by the contamination.

Twice a day like clockwork, hundreds of cows are herded into the Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico. The farm is the creation of Art Schaap, who built it from the ground up in 1992. His crews are so accustomed to the routine, they make quick work getting cows onto dozens of milking machines, watching as the lifeblood of this farm is pumped out gallon by gallon. But since late 2018, milking has been a futile effort. Schaap can’t sell an ounce of it.

Instead, waterfalls of white milk, as much as 15,000 gallons a day, are sent flowing down the drain. When it's dumped, all Schaap sees are dollar signs. He tells Spotlight on America he's currently losing between $8-10 million each year. That's because his milk has been labeled unusable by state agriculture officials who suspended his permit for milk production as a result of PFAS contamination, court records say. PFAS chemicals, studies show, have been linked to cancer and other health problems in humans.

In Schaap's case, the contamination appears to come from his neighbor, Cannon Air Force Base, which borders his property. Lawsuits filed by Schaap and the Attorney General of New Mexico allege that’s where toxic firefighting foam containing PFAS has been used for decades. State records show it tainted the groundwater, leaking out into Schaap’s sprawling farm. He says it contaminated the water that goes to his cows and has also worked its way into the irrigated crops that feed them.

"What I liked about this property when I bought it, it had some of the best water. That's why I bought this property. Now it's some of the most polluted in the county. I wanted the best water and now I have the worst," farmer Art Schaap explained.

The result isn't just contaminated milk or irrigation water. During a tour of Schaap's property, we also saw another staggering casualty of the PFAS contamination. Because his cows can’t be used for milk or be sold for meat, they're now wasting away, eventually dying on the farm. Records supplied by Schaap show he's documented more than 1,500 deaths that have been reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. Those thousands of cows fill pits, Schaap says he's been forced to dig on his property.

"This is their doing and they’re not being held accountable for it. That's the sad part. We’re having to take care of their problem," farmer Art Schaap said of PFAS contamination on his farm that's been blamed on the military's use of toxic firefighting foam.

Spotlight on America has been reporting since 2019 that the DoD is dealing with PFAS contamination at hundreds of military installations nationwide, with little action taken so far. The military has identified at least 698 installations where the DoD used or potentially released PFAS chemicals. A PFAS Task Force has been formed and some plans have been laid out, but so far, the military has not initiated significant cleanup efforts or found an alternative to the toxic foam.

During a May hearing, military leaders told House lawmakers the DoD has a well-established track record when it comes to environmental cleanup. But they admit PFAS is a new challenge. "The rate of progress is defined primarily by the rules that govern our physical world. Physics, chemistry and science, establish the realm of the possible and dictate the parameters within which we work," testified Richard Kidd, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience. "Based on what we know today, and known technologies, frankly, it will be years before we fully define the scope of the problem. And after that, probably decades before cleanup is complete."

It's a problem Senator Alex Padilla, D-Calif., is focused on. He recently proposed legislation to fund billions of dollars in cleanup at the 50 most contaminated sites. But he knows the problem extends well beyond the installations themselves.

"Unfortunately, the Department of Defense has been knowingly polluting PFAS chemicals for decades, yet they've made very little progress on cleanup despite everything that we know about the health consequences for military families, the surrounding communities and the environment. This is unacceptable," U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said during a June press conference. "I want to encourage families to get informed while we work on insisting on better public notification to surrounding communities by the Department of Defense."

That notification is finally happening, in part, thanks to other action by Congress. As part of the 2021 defense spending bill, the Department of Defense is required to take a new step, sending letters to farmers and agricultural operators within a one-mile down gradient of potentially tainted bases. The letters notify them about an invisible threat that could ruin their livelihood.

Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, says the letters fall far short of what the DoD should be doing. "Imagine if your neighbor called and said, 'Hey! I'm going to start sending toxic waste into your backyard, just letting you know'. That's ridiculous right? Shouldn't the Department of Defense be responsible, if they know the irrigation water is contaminated, to clean it up as quickly as possible?" Faber said.

Faber points out the PFAS contamination issue impacts more than just the military or the farms themselves. It trickles out to all of us through the food supply.

"We don't know which farmers are impacted. We don't know how much PFAS is in the irrigation water these farmers are spraying on their crops that we ultimately eat. We don't know how much of this irrigation water is being used to water animals that we either eat or the products of which we ultimately eat. We should know that. It shouldn't be a secret whether or not the food we’re eating might be contaminated with a toxic forever chemical," said Scott Faber with the Environmental Working Group.

Spotlight on America has repeatedly asked the Defense Department, the USDA and numerous members of Congress for a list of impacted farms that have received notification letters. To date, no one can or will provide one.

We've also submitted federal Freedom of Information Act requests seeking that information. To date, our request to the DoD has gone unanswered. The USDA denied our request, but indicated it has more than 170 pages of data related to this issue. The agency told us that while the information was handed over to the DoD for the purpose of notification, it would normally not be released to anyone. The USDA's response to Spotlight on America cited several exemptions to prevent release of the data about which farms had been notified, including one that it said "pertains to the information the release of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of third parties".

Our team also sent the DoD a list of specific questions related to PFAS cleanup, notification and the impact on the agricultural community. We received no response.

In June we were provided a copy of a sample letter that says, in part, "The [DoD Component] sampled groundwater at [Military Installation or National Guard Facility] where [Military Installation or National Guard Facility] activities may have released per- and polyfluroalkyl substances (PFAS). Our sampling detected [perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and/or perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS)] above the notification levels which can be found in Attachment 2. Your agricultural operation is located within 1 mile downgradient of [Military Installation or National Guard Facility]. I obtained your name and address from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of our consultation with them in providing this notice."

After Art Schaap was notified about PFAS contamination by the DoD, he took them to court. The litigation is ongoing. Schaap says he's seeking compensation, and recognition that the damage he claims the military has caused has cost him almost everything. "They ought to go out into the countryside and actually take care of it. That’s what I'm up against. I'm fighting Goliath."

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