New Mexico says EPA abandoned state in fight against toxic 'forever chemicals'

New Mexico says EPA abandoned state in fight against toxic 'forever chemicals'
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New Mexico’s Democratic governor is pushing back against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to help the state fight contamination from “forever chemicals” spread by a military base.

In a Friday letter to EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland reportedly recommends full restoration of monuments Trump altered | EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump | State appeals court upholds approval of Minnesota pipeline EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump Overnight Energy: EPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot standards | Interior proposes withdrawal of Trump rule that would allow drillers to pay less | EPA reverses Trump guidance it said weakened 'forever chemicals' regulations MORE, Gov. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamNew Mexico launching vaccine sweepstakes with M in prizes The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting Biden vows to get 'more aggressive' on lifestyle benefits of vaccines MORE said the lack of help from the EPA “is inconsistent with its mission to protect public health and the environment” and is an example of “EPA’s failure to uphold compliance with federal environmental laws.”

The EPA responded Tuesday that it cannot let "short-term litigation posturing" interfere with its mission to protect human and environmental health.

Lujan Grisham’s letter is in reference to a class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS, cancer-linked substances used in a variety of nonstick products and firefighting foam relied on by the military and airports.

PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment. 

The letter, first reported by Politico, is the latest example of frustrations from states in getting the military to work with local leaders in cleaning up contamination.

Some of the blame has been levied against the EPA after suspicions the agency weakened its own PFAS regulations to help the military avoid what could be a $2 billion cleanup bill.

Lawmakers, however, have worked to strengthen the military’s PFAS culpability, including measures in the National Defense Authorization Act to force the military to work with states to clean up contamination.

A measure from Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallSenate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin Study: Chemical used in paint thinners caused more deaths than EPA identified Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate MORE (D-N.M.) included in the House bill would require the military to provide clean water to farms contaminated by PFAS. 

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Udall was motivated by the plight of a New Mexico dairy farmer who euthanized 4,000 of his cows after the milk they produced tested positive for high levels of PFAS. That farm, located near a military base, caught the attention of Food and Drug Administration researchers in documenting the spread of PFAS from water to food.

New Mexico sued the Air Force for PFAS contamination in March, and Lujan Grisham’s letter criticizes EPA for reneging on a promise from Wheeler to help the state “with legal and technical assistance in a confidential manner.”

“Providing fact sheets and offering webinars are not meaningful,” she wrote.

In responding to request for comment from The Hill, the EPA pointed to a July letter from the agency’s top lawyer and assistant administrator that said EPA is not permitted to bring judicial action against another executive branch agency.

It goes on to list actions EPA has taken to assist New Mexico, including providing fact sheets and webinars along with attending meetings and calls. 

But a separate Friday letter from New Mexico Environment Department head James Kenney to another EPA office disputes that reasoning, arguing that “EPA is unrestricted from taking administrative enforcement actions against federal agencies under its controlling acts.”

The EPA responded to that letter Tuesday, saying its work with New Mexico should not be disparaged.

"If the state has not found our assistance useful, that has not been communicated as we have worked jointly on this issue," the agency wrote to the governor, adding that the state's letter "has the potential to miscommunicate to the public the truth of the federal-state collaboration." 

New Mexico pushed back against the Tuesday letter after it was first reported by The Hill.

"EPA suggests the concerns public officials have for the health and safety of New Mexicans and their environment amount to ‘litigation posturing,’" Environment Secretary James Kenney said in a statement. "EPA’s disconnect between what has been offered and what New Mexico needs demonstrates a lack of understanding of what our rural New Mexico communities are facing. The Attorney General and the Environment Department will continue to push on behalf of our communities until PFAS is no longer a threat."

The Department of Defense did not respond to request for comment. 

New Mexico is not alone in its frustration with the EPA or the military. Last month 22 attorneys general wrote a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to compel action from the two agencies. 

Updated at 4:40 p.m.