Back Forty: For one New Mexico farmer, a slow-moving PFAS disaster

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Art Schaap says he has become a ‘guinea pig’ for the nation’s response to PFAS contamination. Photo by Don J. Usner for Searchlight New Mexico.

By Sara Van Note

Art Schaap is a third-generation dairy farmer in Clovis, New Mexico, whose life and livelihood were forever altered in 2018. That September he discovered that his farm was contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a.k.a. “forever chemicals,” that had migrated, via groundwater polluted by firefighting foam, from neighboring Cannon Air Force Base. The well water he used to irrigate crops and water his cows was contaminated, as was his drinking water. After testing confirmed that his milk also contained dangerous levels of PFAS, he was forced to dump it all. The Air Force offered to supply bottled water for household use but denied responsibility for contaminating his cows, crops or soil. PFAS, a class of several thousand chemicals used in everything from cookware to cosmetics, don’t break down in the environment and have been linked to various cancers and a host of other health problems.

The response to Schaap’s plight is ongoing, and has involved multiple state and federal regulatory bodies. His was the second U.S. dairy known to be contaminated by PFAS. Since then, two more dairy farms have tested positive, while widespread environmental contamination has been confirmed across the country, including at nearly 400 military sites. Once people started looking, PFAS seemed to be everywhere.

As a result, water and agricultural regulations are changing at both the federal and state levels. In 2021 the USDA updated its Dairy Indemnity Payment Program (DIPP), enabling farmers to receive payments for euthanizing contaminated cows, in addition to payments for milk contaminated without their knowledge. And the EPA just released new, enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS this week.

While he has received some relief funds, Schaap continues to fight for compensation for the loss of his farm and business. He’s a plaintiff in multidistrict litigation against PFAS manufacturers, and he sued the Air Force for the contamination of his groundwater.

I wrote about Schaap’s plight for FERN in 2019, and followed up with him in February. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the state of your farm now?

We put all the cows down. I kept them alive until April of 2022. The Dairy Indemnity [Payment] Program paid me for 18 months to milk the cows until they came up with a program. Then I milked those cows for another year, because I couldn’t participate in the program unless I had the animals. If the same scenario happened today, they would pay you 90 days for the milk. They would put the cows down after the fourth or fifth month, because once PFAS gets into these animals, the industry doesn’t want them.

The value of the animals in 2018 [when the farm was shut down] was a lot higher than in 2022. DIPP gave me 65 percent of the [2018] value. I ended up giving all the money to the bank, and so now I have an empty dairy. So I’m still out of business. I didn’t have enough money to replace the animals. 

I am in dire straits with this farm, because I’ve been paying the amortization and the principal and interest for five years with an empty dairy. And it’s kind of hard if you don’t have an income.

It took four years for them to come up with a plan for what to do with the animals, and I got left holding the bag. I was the guinea pig. Hopefully another farmer doesn’t have to go through it again.

Do you hope to farm there again in the future?

I can’t. The water is contaminated, and to put filters on the wells for agriculture doesn’t pay. We have 40 wells, and probably 20 of them are contaminated. If you got a 300- or 400-gallon-a-minute well, it’s gonna cost you $600,000 [for filters]. Then you have your yearly maintenance on them. And for agriculture, you can’t afford to spend millions of dollars on filters. Because how are you going to pass that cost on? 

What is the latest with your lawsuits against the PFAS manufacturers and the Air Force?

It is ongoing. The manufacturers had knowledge that this product was not good. And even the Air Force knew way before we did. It’s moving really slow. We would like to sit down with the government and just say, hey, you admit the contamination. You’ve paid me for the animals, but you haven’t paid me for my loss of my business or my property value.

How has the state of New Mexico helped you?

The Environment Department helped pay for burial of the animals. We buried 4,000 animals. We would put a layer of them in and cover them up with compost, and then put another layer of dead animals. So now we’re applying through the NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] for incineration of those [cows], after we compost them. The cows are 60-70 percent moisture, and the rest of it is bones and flesh. And so the idea would be to compost them on site and get them to where they’re in a dry matter situation, and then haul off the composted remains to incinerate them. They don’t want that contamination on the property. My dairy and all my land is considered hazardous waste.

How has the lack of federal regulation of PFAS in drinking water affected your situation?

The military site that contaminated the ground has basically said, well, there’s no rule [for PFAS in drinking water] yet. So how can you make me comply? They also say, well, we don’t clean farm groundwater, we only clean drinking water. It shouldn’t matter. If it’s going to agriculture use or municipal use, it’s the same water.

How is your health? You had concerns after your exposure through contaminated well water at your home.

Since I’ve been off the water, I’ve been trying to keep a good diet. The last time I was at the doctor, all my cholesterol was down. Everything was looking good, the doctor said, and I was healthy. So I’m very thankful for that.

What happens now?

We’rejust hoping to relocate our farm, and farm somewhere we don’t have to worry about water contamination. It’s been a long road. This September, it’ll be five years. We don’t want to deal with hazardous waste chemicals, we don’t want to deal with the cleanup. If the federal government and the state want to clean it up, then it needs to be done. But if I’m gone, this contamination is still here.