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WED: Downwinders Renew Push For Compensation, More Counties Move To Fewer Virus Restrictions, + More

U.S. Department of Energy
Public Domain
Trinity Test in 1945, the world's first atomic explosion


People Downwind Of 1st Atomic Blast Renew Push For US Payout - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The president of the Navajo Nation, New Mexico residents who live downwind from the site of the world's first atomic blast and others renewed their push Wednesday for recognition and compensation from the U.S. government following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War.

A congressional subcommittee was holding a hearing on who should be eligible under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Navajo President Jonathan Nez, the co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a nuclear weapons consultant and an official from Mohave County, Arizona, were expected to testify.

Groups and residents have been urging lawmakers to expand the compensation program for years, and advocates say the latest push takes on added weight because the act is set to expire next year.

Communities downwind from the first atomic test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, want compensation for health effects they say have spanned generations due to fallout from the blast, dubbed the Trinity Test. They say their communities have been plagued by cancer, birth defects and stillbirths.

Advocates also point to health problems among the Native Americans who worked in uranium mines that supplied materials for the nation's weapons program.

A multibillion-dollar defense spending package approved last year included an apology to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states affected by radiation from nuclear testing over the decades, but no action was taken on legislation that sought to change and broaden the compensation program.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who sponsored the spending package when he was a member of the House, organized a meeting last summer with lawmakers, former miners, survivor groups from New Mexico, Idaho and Guam and others.

"If you listen to the stories of downwinders, it's clear that the Trinity Test unleashed a lifetime of illness and suffering for many New Mexico families," Luján after the meeting.

The compensation program covers workers who became sick as a result of the radiation hazards of their jobs and those who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site, where the federal government conducted several hundred nuclear explosive tests over four decades. Excluded are residents near the Trinity Site in New Mexico, others who were downwind in Nevada, veterans who cleaned up radioactive waste in the Marshall Islands and others.

The National Cancer Institute last fall issued a series of scientific papers on radiation doses and cancer risks resulting from the Trinity Test. Researchers said some people probably got cancer from the radioactive fallout that wafted across New Mexico after the bomb was detonated but the exact number is unknown.

People who were downwind of the blast in New Mexico were disappointed in the studies, saying researchers failed to do any new sampling but rather made "guesstimates" about the risks based on a review of existing scientific literature and an old fallout map. They argued that modern computer modeling may have helped provide a more accurate picture of how radioactive particles were disbursed given New Mexico's turbulent summer weather patterns.

After 3 Days With No COVID Deaths, Navajo Nation Reports 2Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 10 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths.

It was the first deaths reported by the tribe after three days without any coronavirus-related fatalities.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's numbers to 30,021 cases and 1,235 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening last week with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.

Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal health officials say nearly 197,000 vaccine shots have been administered so far.

"COVID-19 is still in our communities and we can expect the number of new daily infections to fluctuate, but we cannot let another large surge occur," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "Let's remain focused and keep taking all precautions to limit possible exposures and risks."

Agency: New Mexico Teachers Pension Fund Still Lacks Money - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A top credit rating firm said Wednesday that New Mexico's teachers pension fund isn't collecting enough money to keep up with financial obligations for future benefits and suggests that a new contribution increase passed by the Legislature wouldn't close the gap.

In the analysis, Moody's Investors Service says a drop in interest rates is likely to hurt the funds' investment earnings from mainly low-risk fixed-income securities. It says a higher percentage of payroll needs to go to the fund to prevent an increase in the amount of unfunded future benefits.

"The gap between our tread water indicator and contributions amounted to roughly 5% of payroll," the report states.

New Mexico's state government is likely on the hook for pension liabilities because it takes responsibility for most K-12 school funding, the report said.

The Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week that funds an employer contribution increase by 1% each year for two years from the current rate of 14% to 16% over a period of two years. Employees also pay into the fund.

Even if signed into law, the increased contribution would fall short of Moody's recommendation. That could leave a shortfall to be made up in other ways, such as increases in teacher contributions or reductions in future benefits. But constitutional protections may prevent those measures, and education advocates argue teachers already get weaker pension benefits than state employees.

It says that changes to accounting calculations in the new interest rates scenario are expected to lead to an increase in unfunded pension liabilities. Moody's did not issue a new credit rating.

The New Mexico Educational Retirement Board serves around 100,000 current and inactive educators and around 50,000 retirees.

An early draft of the bill would have increased contributions 1% each year for four years but it was scaled back.

A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board did not respond to a request for comment.

More Counties Reach Less Restrictive Status Under Health Guidelines Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM

State health officials released an updated COVID-19 map for New Mexico that shows 23 counties in less restrictive categories because of decreased virus risk.

The New Mexico Department of Health announced 13 counties are now at the turquoise level – the least restrictive under the state’s color-coded system. Those include Santa Fe, Socorro and Los Alamos counties.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports to reach the turquoise level, a county must have a test positivity rate below 5% and a per capita case rate of fewer than 8 per 100,000 for two consecutive biweekly map updates.

It means restaurants in those counties can expand indoor dining to 75% capacity and bars and clubs can operate at 33% indoor capacity.

There are now 10 counties in the green level, including Chaves, Rio Arriba and Taos counties.

Ten counties are in the yellow level, including the state’s most populous county, Bernalillo, as well as Sandoval and Doña Ana counties.

State health officials on Wednesday announced 218 new COVID-19 cases and 6 additional deaths.

The number of deaths of New Mexicans related to COVID-19 is now 3,909 and there have been 190,275 cases since the pandemic began.

New Mexico To Issue $600 One-Time Tax Rebates Amid PandemicAssociated Press

The New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department has started issuing $600 one-time rebates for taxpayers who are not dependents and who receive the Working Families Tax Credit.

The department said Tuesday that recipients must have an adjusted gross income of no more than $39,000 if they are married and filing as the head of a household, or $31,200 or less if they are single filers, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The Legislature authorized the rebates earlier this year, more than 110,000 rebates worth more than $66 million have already been issued.

New Mexico's Working Families Credit is worth 17% of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit this year, department officials said. Qualifications for the state and federal credits are the same.

Taxpayers who filed their 2020 tax returns and are eligible for the rebates do not need to take further action. Rebates are expected to be either mailed or delivered by direct deposit.

Residents who have not yet filed 2020 tax returns and who believe they are eligible for the rebates should file as soon as possible. Filing electronically and using direct deposit can expedite the process.

Taxpayers who filed their 2020 tax returns without claiming the tax credit but who believe they qualify must file an amended return.

Storm Drops Snow, Pushes Strong Winds Across New MexicoAssociated Press

A storm dropped snow and pushed strong winds across much of northern and central New Mexico on Wednesday as authorities warned of highway closures and difficult travel conditions in some areas.

In east-central New Mexico, Interstate 40 was closed late Wednesday morning between Clines Corners and Santa Rosa due to heavy snow and multiple crashes, and U.S. 285 was closed near Vaughn.

A high wind warning was issued in the Albuquerque area where the National Weather Service said gusts of up to 68 mph were recorded at the airport.

Snowfall accumulations were expected to range from several inches to up to a foot, the weather service said.

Weather conditions were expected to gradually improve Wednesday but another storm was expected to begin dropping additional snow on the northern mountains and northwestern New Mexico late Thursday, the weather service said.

Public schools in Gallup and Las Vegas were closed, and a power outage in Ruidoso affected 3,700 customers.

Small Plane Crashes In Southern New Mexico; 3 Aboard InjuredAssociated Press

The three people aboard a single-engine plane suffered minor injuries when it crashed Wednesday south of Lordsburg in southwestern New Mexico, authorities said.

Cause of the 1:30 a.m. crash was under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration which said the plane was on a flight from Fort Stockton, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona.

No identities were released and no additional information was immediately available.

Lawsuits Mount For Nevada-Based Real Water, Amid FDA Probe - By Ken Ritter, Associated Press

Lawsuits are mounting against a Las Vegas-based bottled water brand, Real Water, amid a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation and accusations by more people in more states that it caused liver illness and other ailments.

A Nevada man's case blamed the product for his liver transplant in September 2019, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed this week in Nevada, and another lawsuit filed in state court also sought class-action status.

"Defendants ... sold their product as 'the healthiest drinking water today,' " attorneys Gustavo Ponce and Mona Amini said in the third case, representing Peter Anthony Arambula. "In reality it has dangerous levels of toxins in it making it unsafe and dangerous to human life."

Brent Jones, president of the bottler, AffinityLifestyles.com Inc., and a former Nevada state Republican lawmaker, did not immediately respond Wednesday to telephone and email messages seeking comment.

Jones issued a statement March 17 calling for stores nationwide to pull Real Water from shelves "until the issue is resolved."

Now, a nearly two-minute video message  featuring Jones on the Real Water website offers "deepest sympathy and concern over the events that led to the inquiry."

It said the "voluntary nationwide recall of all products" will remain in effect "until the safety of our product is clearly established."

The court actions follow an FDA warning last week not to drink, cook with, sell or serve Real Water, which is marketed widely in the U.S.

Lee Gray, an attorney representing the company in the FDA probe, said Wednesday that Real Water "issued a voluntary product recall and is continuing to work closely with FDA to investigate and determine the root cause of any issues with its products." He declined to comment about the lawsuits.

Will Kemp, a Las Vegas attorney, launched the legal barrage with a civil negligence and deceptive trade practices case filed March 16. It blamed the water for liver illness in five hospitalized children.

Kemp said Real Water is sold throughout the Southwest — including Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and the Los Angeles area — at stores including Sprouts, Whole Foods and Costco. It is also delivered to homes in large bottles.

The regional Southern Nevada Health District reported investigating illnesses of six other people since November 2020 who reported less severe symptoms including vomiting, nausea, appetite loss and fatigue.

A new lawsuit by Kemp, filed Monday on behalf of plaintiff Myles Hunwardsen and four other people, blamed the water for Hunwardsen's liver failure in September 2019. It said he received a liver transplant at a hospital in Los Angeles.

"Real Water is believed to be the cause of an extraordinary number of liver damage cases involving Nevada residents," the lawsuit said.

The separate class-action negligence case filed Monday by attorney David Hilton Wise in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas seeks unspecified damages on behalf of three California women.

It alleges deceptive trade practices and false advertising, and identifies the class of injured possible plaintiffs as anyone in the U.S. who bought Real Water "for personal, family or household use."

Real Water is marketed as premium drinking water with healthy detoxifying properties. It comes in distinctive boxy blue bottles with labels calling it "alkalized" and "infused with negative ions."

Kemp's court filings say the water is drawn from the Las Vegas public tap water supply.

The company posted copies of technical water-quality reports dated Jan. 6 and listing certification in 42 states and the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands.

New Mexico To Begin Transition Into 10-Digit Phone Dialing – Associated Press

State utility regulators say New Mexico in late April will start a six-month transition period to prepare telephone callers for when they'll have to include an area code when making local calls.

Starting April 24, callers can start using 10-digit dialing for telephone calls within the state. That will begin the permissive transition period leading up to Oct. 24 when 10-digit dialing will become mandatory, the Public Regulation Commission said Tuesday.

The switch to 10-digit dialing is a result of the Federal Communications Commission's plan to implement a new three-digit number — 9-8-8 — for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, the PRC said in a statement.

The hotline's new three-digit number will make 10-digit dialing mandatory for all local calls in New Mexico's 505 and 575 area codes because some customers' phone numbers start with a 988 prefix.

The commission said the new dialing requirement won't require that phone numbers be changed or affect the price of calls.

However, the commission said automatic dialing equipment such as fax machines, alarm systems and Internet dial-up numbers will need to be reprogrammed to call 10-digit numbers.

New Mexico Legislature Assigns $1B In Federal Relief Funds - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's Legislature is asserting its budgetary authority over $1.6 billion in new federal aid that dwarfs year-to-year spending adjustments, setting an agenda for economic recovery that Gov. Lujan Grisham could challenge with her veto pen.

Congress and President Joe Biden approved the $1.9 trillion relief package this month that funnels billions of dollars directly to New Mexico's state government, school districts and local governments.

A state Senate finance committee quickly channeled about $1 billion of that economic relief to accounts and initiatives that avoid future payroll tax increases on businesses, underwrite college tuition for in-state students and backfill lost income at state museums and more.

A final budget bill approved by the legislature devotes federal relief of $600 million to replenishing the state's unemployment trust fund. The fund began borrowing from the federal government last year to fulfill unprecedented unemployment claims.

Lawmakers earmarked another $6 million for the state fair in Albuquerque, along with $14.5 million to bolster spending at state parks, historic sites and New Mexico's world-renowned public museum system. Those facilities were closed down for much of the past year as a health precaution against the pandemic, suspending income from admission fees.

The state's lottery tuition fund is slated to receive $100 million that could make it cheaper if not tuition-free for thousands of residents to attend public colleges for years to come.

The scholarship, underwritten by lottery ticket sales, covered around $4,500 in tuition costs for New Mexicans in the current school year or about half the cost of attending the University of New Mexico. The award was 100% in the past.

Separately, the legislature also boosted general fund spending on lottery scholarship payouts and the governor's own supplementary "opportunity scholarship" program for college attendance free of tuition and fees.

Lujan Grisham says her office will be taking a "hard look" at the Legislature's priorities for spending federal relief. She has line-item veto authority to delete any provision of the Legislature's budget bill.

"It's premature to tell you what we'll do," the governor said regarding federal relief spending at a news conference Saturday at the close of the regular annual legislative session.

On the proposal to put federal aid toward student aid, the governor said "that may not be the best community effort, particularly since we got $18 million in opportunity scholarships in addition and $15 million in lottery scholarships" from the state's annual general fund spending.

Some states are only beginning to sort out spending priorities for federal funds.

In neighboring Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis on Monday announced a statewide tour to hear from residents and gather ideas on how to spend the state's $3.9 billion share of federal relief to the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The new round of federal pandemic relief comes with fewer restrictions on spending by state and local governments as they cover increased expenditures, replenish lost revenue and mitigate economic harm from COVID-19. That can include investments in infrastructure or aid to households, businesses and nonprofits.

New Mexico would devote about $50 million to spending on Medicaid. Local enrollment has soared amid the pandemic in the federally subsidized health insurance plan for residents living in poverty or on the cusp.

The Legislature and Lujan Grisham shared major priorities in a budget bill that would increase state general fund spending to $7.45 billion for the fiscal year staring July 1. That's a nearly 5% increase of $375 million over current fiscal year spending.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-Related Deaths 3rd Day In Row - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported three new COVID-19 cases but no additional deaths. 

It was the third consecutive day that the tribe has not recorded a coronavirus-related death. 

The death toll remains at 1,233 since the pandemic began with the number of confirmed cases at 30,010 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. 

The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening last week with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.  Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain.

Colorado Shooting Victims: Store Staffers, Cop, Photographer - By Jennifer Peltz, Corey Williams And Heather Hollingsworth, Associated Press

Three of the victims of a shooting at a Colorado supermarket were gunned down while putting in a day's work.

Another was a police officer who raced in to try to rescue them and others from the attack Monday that left 10 dead. A picture of the victims began to emerge Tuesday, when the suspect in the killings was booked into jail on murder charges after being treated at a hospital.

Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold said Officer Eric Talley was the first to arrive after a call about shots being fired and someone carrying a rifle.

Talley graduated from high school in Albuquerque in 1988. The school superintendent expressed condolences and praised "the example Officer Talley leaves us all."

Talley was "by all accounts, one of the outstanding officers" in the department, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said.

Talley's father said his son — who had seven children, ages 7 to 20 — was a devoted father who "knew the Lord."

"When everyone else in the parking lot was running away, he ran toward it," Shay Talley said.

"We know where he is," he added. "He loved his family more the anything. He wasn't afraid of dying. He was afraid of putting them through it."