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THURS: WIPP To Temporarily Halt Operations + More

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
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Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

New Mexico Nuclear Waste Facility To Pause OperationsCarlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press

A nuclear waste plant in New Mexico has announced plans to temporarily stop its waste acceptance and other operations to complete multiple maintenance projects at the facility.

The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported Wednesday the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is expected to cease its primary operations of receiving and disposing transuranic nuclear waste from Feb. 14 to March 15.

Waste shipments would also be put on hold until the projects are completed, officials said.

Facility officials said maintenance work is expected to take multiple days or be conducted in critical areas of the facility located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad.

The facility is also expecting a new access road so the plant could direct unrelated traffic away from the facility, officials said. The $8.9 million construction project on the northern access road into the plant was ongoing for months and will be cut down to a single lane until March 24, facility officials said.

State Bill Aims To Discourage Trafficking Of Wildlife Parts Associated Press

State legislators in New Mexico are considering criminal penalties including jail time and civil fines for people who knowingly buy or sell endangered wildlife parts and products.

A Senate committee on Thursday endorsed the bill from Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque on a 6-3 party-line vote with Republicans in opposition. Stewart said 10 other states have adopted their own enforcement provisions on wildlife trafficking to support federal and international restrictions.

The New Mexico ban on wildlife trafficking would be linked to surviving species that are threatened with extinction such as elephants, lions, rhinoceros and others listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

New Mexico district courts would be able to enforce fines of up to $25,000 per object, with potentially higher fines for highly valuable animal products. Local enforcement would involve the State Parks Division and the Department of Game and Fish.

Stewart's bill includes exemptions for some antiques that are at least a century old, certain musical instruments and objects that are lawfully possessed by enrolled members of a federally recognized Native American tribe or nation.

New Mexico conservation officers already can help U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents under a cooperative law enforcement agreement. But criminal charges only are brought forward by the federal agents in cooperation with the U.S Attorney's Office,

The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts says criminal convictions could result in sentences of up to a year in jail.

Elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions and other animals are the targets of poachers who sell carcasses and body parts for up to tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

Navajo Police Seeking Information On Deadly Hit-And-Run - Associated Press

Authorities on the Navajo Nation are looking to the public for any information on a deadly hit-and-run on the New Mexico side of the reservation.

A motorist found an injured, 71-year-old man sitting along BIA Route 11 in Pinedale, about 20 miles west of Crownpoint, on Jan. 23. The man told the motorist he was hit by a vehicle before dawn, but the man couldn't provide any more information, the Navajo Division of Public Safety said.

The man was transported to a local hospital where he died from his injuries, police said.

Navajo police spokeswoman Christina Tsosie said Thursday the man has been identified, but his name wouldn't be released.

Tribal authorities are asking anyone who might have information on the incident to call the Navajo Police Department or criminal investigators.

New Mexico Senate Approves More Money To Promote 2020 Census – Associated Press

New Mexico legislators are setting aside more money to promote participation in the U.S. Census. The state Senate on Wednesday voted 39-0 to assign $8 million to ensure residents are not left out of the population count that calibrates funding levels for federal programs.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the Senate Bill now goes to the House. 

The state previously allocated $3.4 million to the effort. The census determines the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending, and New Mexico officials estimate that a 1% undercount would cost the state more than $700 million in federal aid over a decade.

At the same time, about 41% of state residents live in hard-to-count areas — the largest proportion of any state in the nation, an Associated Press analysis of government data has found.

Republican state Sen. William Burt of Alamogordo sponsored the spending bill and highlighted the need to count an influx of oilfield workers in southeastern New Mexico, full-time college students and employees at military bases.

Census-takers will confront special challenges in surveying remote desert communities with gaps in communications infrastructure and households that primarily speak Spanish and Native American languages.

New Mexico Could Break Its Taboo On Salaries For Legislators - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators could receive state salaries for the first time as the result of a newly proposed constitutional amendment.

A panel of legislators led by state Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque endorsed the proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday that would give the recently founded State Ethics Commission authority to set salaries for lawmakers and other elected officials, including the governor.

New Mexico runs the only unsalaried legislature in the nation, though members receive a $162 daily stipend during sessions and reimbursement for some travel expenses.

Amendment sponsor Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat, said that handing over salary decisions to the ethics commission would depoliticize the matter and avoid the taboo against lawmakers approving their own pay. 

Ivey-Soto's proposal would place salary decisions for a long list of elected state and county officials under the authority of the ethics commission. Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell worried that might be "punting a little bit of our legislative authority" to approve state spending.

Constitutional amendments approved by the Legislature still require ratification by statewide vote. 

New Mexico District: Teacher Shortage A 'Health Emergency' - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A northern New Mexico school board says a statewide teacher shortage that is hitting the region especially hard is a "public health emergency." 

Española Public Schools made the assertion earlier this month about the dearth of qualified classroom teachers. 

The Albuquerque Journal reports the district urged Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to formally make that same declaration. 

On Jan. 15, the Española school board passed a resolution that calls on the governor to address urgent needs that contribute to the teacher shortage, such as teacher pay and the system in place to develop young teachers at the state’s colleges and universities

The resolution also encourages New Mexico’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers who convened last week for this year’s 30-day legislative session “to take every action required to abate the emergency.”

Citing statistics from the state Public Education Department that say there are more than 2,100 unfilled teaching positions in the state, the resolution states that the failure to properly educate children “leaves communities vulnerable to economic decline, and results in a failure of human capital cutting across professional boundaries throughout New Mexico.”

A spokesman for the governor didn’t directly answer whether Lujan Grisham would go so far as to declare a public health emergency.

NM Supreme Court Rules Energy Law Applies To Power Plant Case - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court says a landmark energy law that moves the state toward more renewable energy must be applied as regulators consider plans by the state's largest electric utility to close a major coal-fired power plant.

The court made its decision after hearing from attorneys representing the Public Regulation Commission, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state lawmakers and Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

Lujan Grisham, the Navajo Nation and state lawmakers had petitioned the court in December to force the commission to take into account the Energy Transition Act as part of the proceedings over shuttering the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico in July 2019 submitted its application for closing the power plant. The filing covered the closure as well as proposals for replacing the lost capacity when the plant ends operations.

Regulators opted to consider a portion of PNM's application as part of an ongoing case that involved abandonment of the plant. That raised questions as to whether the new energy law would be applied to the decision-making process since it took effect after that case began.

Justice Barbara Vigil said the utility's application was filed after the law took effect and so the commission needs to consider the provisions of the law as the case proceeds.

New Mexico County Directs Juvenile Detention Center ClosureSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Santa Fe County commissioners have directed employees to close the county's juvenile detention center, citing concerns about rising costs and a decrease in the detention population.

Multiple members of the commission supported shutting down the Youth Development Program, but must inform the union that represents the facility workers, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Tuesday.

County officials expect to make a final decision on the facility's closure at a future meeting.

The number of juveniles held at the center has decreased from 357 in 2017 to 293 in 2019, officials said.

More out-of-county youth were held in the facility last year than county residents, county officials said.

The county receives up to $230 to house a juvenile from another part of the state, a fraction of the cost to operate the facility, officials said. The facility's closure would save the county nearly $1.8 million per year, officials said.

There are currently six statewide detention centers, while Chaves, Taos and McKinley counties have shut down their juvenile detention facilities, officials said.

If the facility in Santa Fe County closes, that leaves juvenile detention centers in Bernalillo, Curry, Doña Ana, Lea and San Juan counties to serve the rest of the state, officials said.

New Mexico State To Halt Student Trips To China Amid VirusAssociated Press

New Mexico State University says its study abroad office will not be sending students to China amid a new virus that has sickened thousands and killed more than 100.

University spokesperson Minerva Baumann told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the school will follow the U.S. State Department's travel warning of "reconsider travel" to China until further notice.

Baumann says New Mexico State doesn't have any outbound students registered through Study Abroad who were planning to study in China this semester.

The move comes after Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, announced that students studying abroad with the school's Shanghai international program will return home this week amid growing concerns of Wuhan coronavirus.

Wuhan is the epicenter of a new virus.

The virus has sickened more than 4,500 people in China, and more than 100 people have died. Symptoms include fever, cough, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath or pneumonia.

University of New Mexico spokesman Dan Jiron said school officials are monitoring events in China but not formal decision has been made on travel restrictions.

New Mexico City OKs Money For Vietnam War-Era Cannon - Gallup Independent, Associated Press

A western New Mexico city is acquiring a Vietnam War-era cannon from the U.S. Army for display in its downtown near the historic Route 66.

The Gallup Independent reports the city council of Gallup, New Mexico, recently approved more than than $12,000 to pay the fees to acquire an M102 Howitzer cannon. City officials want to place it in front of the Veterans Memorial pillars in the Downtown Courthouse Plaza.

Mayor Jackie McKinney says the cannon is "a good-looking piece of equipment."

Councilor Fran Palochak, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War, thanked McKinney for wanting to bring such a memorial to honor veterans.

But Gallup resident JoAnn Benenati says she worried the cannon was more of a celebration of war rather than an homage to veterans.

Presidential Task Force On Missing Natives Charts PathAssociated Press

A presidential task force charged with coming up with ways to address cases of missing and slain Native Americans met for the first time Wednesday.

The task force made up of seven federal officials will meet over two years and work with tribes to tailor responses to what has become an epidemic in Indian Country. No single federal database tracks the number of Native Americans or Alaska Natives who are missing or have been killed.

The Justice Department has said the population suffers disproportionately from violence.

The task force announced Wednesday that it will hold the first in a series of listening sessions with tribes on Feb. 12 during a gathering of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington.

It also announced the selection of executive director Marcia Good, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Montana who prosecuted cases out of Indian Country.

The task force will report on its work in November and produce a final report at the end of its second year.

Man In New Mexico DNA Website Rape Arrest Ordered Held - Associated Press

A New Mexico man charged with rape after authorities checked DNA evidence against a genealogy website has been ordered held pending trial.

State District Court Judge Cindy Leos ruled Wednesday that Angel Gurule should remain behind bars even though he has no criminal history. She wrote that the violent nature of the attack, among other factors, led to her finding that no conditions of release could protect the safety of the community.

Defense attorney Raymond Maestas had urged the judge to impose strict conditions of release, like GPS monitoring and a curfew.

Authorities say the evidence connects him to a New Mexico woman who was raped the afternoon of Dec. 24, 2015, as she jogged along a drainage ditch beside the Rio Grande.

According to court documents, the victim went to the Rape Crisis Center shortly after the attack and completed an exam. Investigators later sent DNA collected during the exam to a genealogy service, which was able to identify one of Gurule's distant relatives. 

Congressional Candidates Name Their 'Superpowers' At Forum - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

One congressional candidate wishes she could read minds like a superhero, a second regrets watching so much television as a teenager and another says he was bullied and shy as a child.

Eight candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in an open race for New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District answered questions both whimsical and weighty from teenage girls affiliated with the youth empowerment group Girls Inc. at a forum Tuesday night.

Candidates were asked to pick a superpower if they could, as they vie for attention in a crowded contest to succeed Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is running as a Democrat to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Udall.

Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative and author, said she would like to understand what another person is truly thinking in conversation in the spirit of understanding. She also touted her toughness as an expert in anti-nuclear proliferation who clashed with the Republican administration of President George W. Bush about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The forum delved into issues of reproductive rights for women, gun safety, environmental policy and what kind of advice candidates would give to themselves if they were teenagers all over again.

On reproductive rights, only state Rep. Joseph Sanchez clearly said that he opposed abortion procedures for late-term pregnancies. The engineer and former electric-coop executive said he overcame shyness and being bullied as a child and wants to bring his expertise in the power grid and solar energy procurement to Congress.

Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya urged teenager moderators to "do you" and embrace their own personalities, recalling awkward years as a youth athlete with size 10 shoes.

Montoya said she had her sights set on Congress since high school, stressing her current active role in advancing state legislation as a local elected official. She said voters have the opportunity to elect the district's first Latina congresswoman — a profile that rival candidate Teresa Leger Fernandez also fits.

A legal adviser to local Native American communities, Teresa Leger joined candidates in calls for a forceful response to revelations about indigenous women who have been killed or are missing. 

Santa Fe-based District Attorney Marco Serna said it's too soon to support the so-called Green New Deal proposed by some Democrats to tackle climate change, given New Mexico's heavy reliance on oil and natural gas to pay for public services. He applauded steps to expand renewable sources of electricity.

On advice for his teen self, John Blair, a former deputy secretary of state and openly gay contender for Congress, recalled living "in the closet" during high school and urged youths to "genuinely embrace what makes you different because that's what makes you fascinating and interesting when you are older."

The Democratic field also includes Kyle Tisdel, an environmental attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, and Dineh Benally, a former candidate for Navajo Nation president. 

Six Republicans are seeking their party's nomination, according to Federal Election Commission. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 in the 3rd Congressional District.