Dairy cows in New Mexico have been euthanised due to pollution from a nearby Air Force base after their milk was found to be unfit for human consumption.
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Thousands of cows have been euthanised in New Mexico due to pollution from a nearby Air Force base after their milk was found to be unfit for human consumption.

Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico has humanely euthanised 3,665 cows after their water source was contaminated by nearby Cannon Air Force Base.

The four-year nightmare scenario started in August 2018, when owner Art Schaap was informed seven of the 13 wells on his dairy farm were contaminated by poisonous toxins, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The total expenditure is expected to cost millions.

In July 2017, US Air Force (USAF) scientists discovered contamination near Highland Dairy. The inspection occurred eight years (2009) after the Air Force identified the need for an inspection. The USAF reported the findings to the New Mexico Environment Department but did not provide the report to Mr Schaap or local residents.

USAF scientists finally tested Mr Schaap’s water supply in August 2018 and found the contamination level so high that bottled water was immediately delivered to the Schaap’s family home. One of the wells on the farm tested at 12,000 parts per-trillion, 171 times the Environment Protection Agency health advisory level of 70 parts per-trillion.

Unbeknown to Mr Schaap, his farm staff and family, toxic chemicals had entered the ground water after aqueous film-forming foam, a chemical substance used to smother flames in fire training exercises, had been used at nearby Cannon Air Force Base, two miles from the farm.

The contaminated wells at Highland Dairy provided the herd’s entire source of drinking water. USAF testing identified the herd as well as the milk produced, contained PFAS levels unsafe for human consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration. Mr Schaap was forced to dump approximately 7,000 litres of milk per-day.

Mr Schapp was concerned the water could have potentially been contaminated the whole time the family has owned the farm, since 1992.

Since the discovery, the farm has been unable to sell the milk from the herd, any animals for beef and could not sell the cows. Crops or the farm property was also unable to be sold.

Mr Schapp had to lay off 40 staff, keeping five workers to feed the animals and run the farm operations.

He believed Cannon Air Force Base was aware of what had happened to the groundwater, stating he expected military personnel would have had integrity when dealing with such concerns.

There were also potential implications for other local farms as well as the community in Clovis, which has a population of 37,000. The potential consequence on human health may also be a ticking time bomb.

The current estimated cost for loss of revenue and increased expenses is $5,946,462 (£4,955,000). This does not take into account for the costs associated with the on-farm composting of euthanised animals and final disposal according to the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED).

In a scathing press release NMED cabinet secretary James Kenney said: “The Department of Defense poisoned Highland Dairy’s cows and the loss is devastating and heart-breaking.

“Rather than take responsibility for its PFAS pollution, the Department of Defense put a family farm out of business and has the audacity to continue its litigation against New Mexico, forcing New Mexicans to pay for the clean-up and legal costs.


“As a result, we are now assisting Highland Dairy in managing dairy cow carcases as hazardous substances and seeking input from experts on treatment and disposal options.

“All states are dealing with PFAS and the agricultural industry. What is uncommon is that New Mexico has the first case to my knowledge in which 3,600 cows have been euthanised. We are treating PFAS like it should be treated, a hazardous waste,” Mr Kenny said.

NMED has allocated $850,000 (£708,000) of its hazardous waste emergency fund for the clean-up operation of the 3,665 euthanised carcases and associated wastes. The department estimates it has now spent more than $6 million (£5 million) to protect communities from PFAS contamination.

As one generation of dairy farmers see retirement on the horizon, who are the next generation farmers taking over the responsibility of feeding the world?

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