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Exclusive: Thousands of farms warned about toxic PFAS from military bases; no fix in sight

Cows at Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico, have been impacted by PFAS contamination according to their owner, Art Schaap (Photo: Joce Sterman)
Cows at Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico, have been impacted by PFAS contamination according to their owner, Art Schaap (Photo: Joce Sterman)
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CLOVIS, New Mexico (SBG) — A Spotlight on America investigation is providing new insight into the scope of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination that's impacting farmland across the country.

Public information requests reveal contact information for more than 50,000 farmers was handed over to the Department of Defense so the military could make notifications about an invisible enemy that could threaten their livelihoods. And a recently released report to Congress shows thousands of agricultural operators have already been contacted by the DoD about the toxic, man-made chemicals that may have leaked beyond base fences.

When Art Schaap built a sprawling dairy farm in Clovis, New Mexico, back in 1992, he envisioned it would one day fund his retirement. But in 2018, he got shocking news that changed everything.

Schaap was notified that an invisible enemy had seeped into his groundwater, impacting his cows, tainting their milk and devastating his business.

There's peoples' lives that have been ruined because of this," dairy farmer Art Schaap told Spotlight on America. "They've basically poisoned our lives.

The 'poison' Schaap is referring to is a toxic set of man-made chemicals known as PFAS. These so-called 'forever chemicals' that are tough to break down in the environment are known to have links to cancer, effects on the immune system and other health problems in humans.

In Schaap's case, records show the chemicals seeped into the groundwater from his neighbor, Cannon Air Force Base. The installation is among the hundreds of military bases nationwide that have long used toxic firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals. Over time, those chemicals leaked onto Schaap's property, with an underground plume impacting his groundwater according to state records. And because of the contamination, he says has to dump about 12,000 gallons of milk a day. All of it, Schaap says, has been rendered useless because of PFAS contamination.

The Department of Defense has long been aware of the problems associated with PFAS. Since 2019, Spotlight on America has been reporting on its efforts to deal with the issue, with numerous environmental groups and federal lawmakers criticizing their inaction. The discussion has mostly centered around contamination on bases, with the initial focus on protecting the drinking water consumed by military families. But the larger clean-up beyond that is a massive undertaking that experts predict will cost taxpayers billions of dollars and take as long as 30 years.

That monumental undertaking is only related to the cleanup inside the fences of military installations across the United States. But what about farmers whose property has been invaded by that same invisible enemy who also have to deal with the impact?

That's a question now being moved forward by Congress. As part of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the DoD is required to take a new step, sending letters to farmers and agricultural operators within a one-mile down gradient of potentially tainted bases, letting them know about the threat of contamination. Spotlight on America first reported on that effort this summer, obtaining a template for the letters that were going out nationwide.

But our team wanted to know specifics about which farmers were being notified about contamination that ultimately could impact our nation's food supply. Spotlight on America filed Freedom of Information Act requests, asking for the names and addresses of every farm or agricultural operation being notified about potential contamination. Those requests revealed stunning findings. The United States Department of Agriculture, which partnered with the DoD on the notification effort, provided us with a list of operators and owners whose information was turned over for potential notification. The data provided revealed:

  • More than 50,000 individuals' information was handed over to the Defense Department for potential notification
  • The list includes farmers in every state, D.C. and Puerto Rico
  • Six states (Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas) have at least 2,000 names on the list

We took our findings to Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Mich. He co-founded the Congressional PFAS Task Force and has been working on the issue for years, proposing legislation that forces the military to take action to clean up the mess they created. "It sets a pretty bad example for other polluters when an agency of the federal government itself is the polluter and fails or resists or attempts to obscure the facts so they don't have to take responsibility for what they've done," he said.

What we've discovered about PFAS so far is just the tip of the iceberg," said Representative Dan Kildee, D-Mich., in reaction to our findings. "We know that PFAS, when it's in an underground plume, doesn't stop at the border of the base. It goes wherever it wants to go.

That's why Congressman Kildee says there's a need for comprehensive, nationwide testing done by the government to know the exact scope of PFAS contamination. Additionally, he is proposing the PFAS Action Act, which will bring PFAS chemicals under the umbrella of hazardous materials in the government's so-called Superfund law, known officially as CERCLA. That designation would make the most tainted sites finally eligible for federal cleanup money.

Right now, PFAS chemicals are not included and Kildee says the designation is crucial for holding the military accountable. "They ultimately said we’ll clean up the bases that we own and operate. That's not good enough. They need to clean up the problem," Congressman Kildee said. "I can't tell you how frustrating this is, because I talk to these people on a regular basis. And they say all the right stuff and then they don't do anything about it."

Anna Reade with the National Resources Defense Council believes the DoD is downplaying the PFAS contamination problem by limiting their notifications to farms located only within a mile downgrade of potentially impacted bases and by notifying only those with groundwater testing found to be at unacceptable levels for just three of the thousands of hazardous PFAS chemicals that exist.

"We haven't seen really any urgent action on their part to address it and that's very concerning considering just the sheer number of DoD sites that are in our country and how many people could be affected," Reade explained. "Everything that's contaminating our food web is eventually resulting in exposure to just the general population, whether you live near a contamination source or not."

Reade told Spotlight on America the list of 50,000 names we obtained for potential notification by the DoD, is not surprising and likely an underestimate.

I think that a lot of times when people want to downplay the issue, they concentrate on one or two chemicals and they ignore the rest and that's a big problem," NRDC staff scientist Anna Reade told Spotlight on America. "When you concentrate on only a couple of these chemicals, it's possible that you're missing the bigger picture.

Spotlight on America tried contacting the Department of Defense more than a dozen times, requesting interviews with the Secretary of Defense as well leaders of each branch of service. We put requests into military leadership specifically tasked with handling environmental issues. But none would agree to an interview.

Last week, a new report to Congress was made public. In the report, the DoD reported that in March 2021, it notified 2,143 agricultural operations about potential PFAS contamination. We know that tens of thousands of others were on the list for potential notification. But when we asked the military how to reconcile the discrepancy between the number of farmers provided for notification and those who actually got letters, the DoD told us thousands of the names didn't fit their criteria for notification. The agency's report says it will send additional notifications as more sites are identified.

The DoD's report to Congress (below) revealed:

  • Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee sent out more notifications than any other base in the country, with 375 letters sent
  • Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey each sent out more than 100 notification letters
  • California, New York and Texas each had at least seven bases that sent out notification letters

But despite what it calls a "proactive approach" to the issue, Spotlight on America has already found holes in the DoD's notification efforts. Based on their own report, not one farm around Cannon Air Force base was notified under the new law. But we know that's not the case. Art Schaap showed us the letter he received from the DoD, an obvious oversight he says doesn't instill confidence in the process.

Back in New Mexico, Schaap is slowly watching his retirement plan wither away. He can't use his cows for milk or sell them for meat, so they're wasting away, dying on his farm. According to his records, as many as 1,600 cows now fill pits he's been forced to dig on his property.

Still, Schaap refuses to fade into the background. He's continuing to wage a legal battle with the military, seeking compensation from the DoD. And remarkably, he still has hope, telling us, "I believe the federal government is going to do the right thing. I believe that."

Spotlight on America is digging deeper into this crucial issue. Later this month, stay tuned for SPOTLIGHT ON AMERICA PRESENTS, a half-hour special featuring more in-depth reporting.

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