WED: Rare Plants Under Review In Oil And Gas Fight, Report Dings Walmart Worker Protections, + More
Rare Plants To Be Reviewed Amid New Mexico Oil And Gas Fight - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take a closer look at two rare plants found only in northwestern New Mexico to see if they warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act as environmentalists push to stop oil and gas development in the region.
The agency's decision to review the Aztec gilia and Clover's cactus came Tuesday, after being petitioned by environmentalists nearly a year ago. Environmentalists point to the fishhook-spined cactus and the flowering herb as more reasons development should be limited in the San Juan Basin. They say federal land managers aren't doing enough to preserve the plants.
"The Bureau of Land Management has been rubber stamping fracking in this region for decades, running roughshod over the greater Chaco landscape and communities," Rebecca Sobel with the group WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. "If unfettered fracking is not reined in, the health of the landscape and these endemic species remains in grave peril."
The fight over drilling in the San Juan Basin has spanned multiple presidential administrations and both sides of the political aisle. Environmental groups began by raising concerns about the potential for increased pollution across the region and some Native American tribes joined the fight, calling for a permanent moratorium that would prohibit development in more areas beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Legislation that would establish a buffer on federal land surrounding the park is pending in Congress. Groups also have been pressuring Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former New Mexico congresswoman and the first Native American to head a cabinet department, to take executive action.
The cactus and the herb mark the latest rallying cry.
In their petitions, environmentalists cited public records that show disagreement within the Bureau of Land Management and failures by oil and gas companies to comply with conditions of their permits when it came to dealing with the plants. They also cited poor record-keeping related to efforts to transplant Clover's cactus and their survival rates.
The cactus is found only in Rio Arriba, Sandoval and San Juan counties in grasslands and among desert shrubs. The petition states that the effects of oil and gas development are mostly associated with the creation of well pads and the networks of pipelines and roads that connect them.
Other threats include horse and cattle grazing, illegal harvesting, seed collection, off-road vehicle use and climate change.
Predation by rabbits, moths and beetles also have contributed to the plants' demise.
Environmentalists say the Aztec gilia population has declined steeply since 1995. The perennial, which has pink tubular flowers, is found only in San Juan County in a limited area.
While the species are considered "sensitive" by state and federal managers, environmentalists argue that regulations aimed at conserving such species in land use plans isn't the same as providing protections for those species. They also note that classification as endangered under state law only prohibits unauthorized collection and transport of the species but doesn't protect them from destruction within their natural habitats.
Environmentalists are asking that critical habitat be set aside for both the herb and the cactus if designated as threatened or endangered. Federal biologists have a year to conduct the review.
In-Person Graduations Scheduled For Las Cruces High Schools – Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press
A year after holding only drive-thru graduations, the school district for New Mexico's second most populous city has scheduled in-person graduation ceremonies at the district's soccer stadium for its six high schools over two days later this month.
Las Cruces Public Schools scheduled ceremonies on May 21 for Onate and Mayfield high schools and Arrowhead Park Early College High School and on May 22 for Las Cruces and Centennial high schools and Rio Grande Preparatory Institute.
The Las Cruces Sun-News reported each graduating senior can invite up to 16 ticketed people as officials hope to ease construction-related traffic near the Field of Dreams stadium. Social distancing and mask-wearing will be required for all attendee while inside the venue.
"I do want to thank all the graduates for their continuous resilience throughout this whole pandemic, and really doing the best that they can," interim Superintendent Ralph Ramos said. "We want to have this ceremony."
Ramos told the Las Cruces Sun-News that the district is looking into ways to celebrate the Class of 2020, which didn't have a normal graduation.
Following back-to-back virtual celebrations in 2020, New Mexico State University will host two separate in-person ceremonies at Aggie Memorial Stadium — one for graduate degree candidates on Friday and another for undergraduate degree candidates on Saturday. A virtual ceremony also will be live-streamed Saturday.
"We are so excited to be able to have not one but two in-person ceremonies as well as a virtual ceremony, which allows for more participation from our distance graduates," said Gabrielle Martinez, NMSU graduation and curriculum data specialist and commencement coordinator.
The in-person ceremonies are invitation-only events. Graduates will be able to invite two guests.
And as the pace of vaccination slows, New Mexico health officials announced Wednesday that vaccines will be available at New Mexico United home games in Albuquerque starting this weekend. Shots will be available for up to 150 ticketholders to the May 15 match in the tailgate lot.
The latest state data shows just over 48% of residents over the age of 16 have been fully vaccinated.
Farmington Police Say Officers Shot, Wound Man Who Pointed Gun – Associated Press
Four Farmington police officers responding to reports of a person firing a gun downtown on Sunday shot and wounded a man who pointed a gun at one officer, the Police Department said.
Police on Monday released a video statement on the incident but did not release the identity of the man who was shot and then hospitalized or specify his injuries.
According to police, the initial reports of gunfire prompted them to order people in the area to shelter in place.
Images from security cameras enabled police to then head to a specific location where officers encountered the man who walked toward them and "did produce a weapon the pointed it at one of our officers," Police Chief Steve Hebbe said in video statement.
No officers were injured.
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office is investigating the incident.
Santa Fe County To Exit Regional Coalition On National Lab – Associated Press
Santa Fe is the latest county to vote to withdraw from the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities, a group of nine local governments in New Mexico that advocates for environmental cleanup funding and jobs at the lab.
The Santa Fe County Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to leave the coalition, days after the Taos County Commission voted 4-1 to withdraw.
The exodus occurs as the coalition struggles with funding and leadership. It has lacked an executive director since last year and lost its federal backing over concerns that funding was improperly used for lobbying.
Amid those issues, local governments have questioned whether the organization is the best way to lobby the laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Energy. It's one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world, historically part of the development of the nuclear bomb and now the site of research on national security, space exploration, renewable energy and other fields.
The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities was formed 10 years ago to give nearby counties, municipalities and pueblos opportunities to ensure national decisions incorporate local needs and concerns of communities surrounding the lab.
During public comment before Tuesday's vote, representatives from nuclear watchdog groups Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Watch New Mexico urged the commission to withdraw from the agreement, arguing that the coalition stands in the way of effective nuclear waste cleanup.
The Santa Fe City Council will consider its continued involvement with the coalition on May 26.
Walmart Sales Soared, Essential Workers Got Scant Protection - By Gracie Todd, Molly Castle Work, Natalie Drum, Nick McMillan, Kara Newhouse, Jazmyn Gray, Aneurin Canham Clyne, Jack Rasiel, Sahana Jayaraman And Haley Chi-Sing - The Howard Center For Investigative Journalism The Howard Center For Investigative Journalism
Sandra Kunz had been worried for her safety while working as a cashier at a Walmart in Aurora, Colorado, during the pandemic, said her sister, Paula Spellman.
The 72-year-old had lung disease, Spellman said. She was "uncomfortable because so many people (were) coming in with coughs."
But Kunz didn't complain to the government agency tasked with protecting workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"Sandy's not a complainer," Spellman said. "She went out and just purchased her own mask and her own gloves."
It wasn't enough. On April 20, 2020, Kunz died from COVID-19 following an outbreak linked to the Aurora Walmart. At least 18 employees got sick and one other worker at Walmart, Lupe Aguilar, died. So did Kunz's husband, Gustavous, who Spellman said fell ill after she did.
The Walmart where Kunz worked was one of at least 151 Walmart facilities in 10 states with available data where multiple COVID-19 illnesses were recorded, a reporting consortium led by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found. On average, one quarter of the company's stores and distribution centers in those states were affected. In New Mexico, COVID-19 hit nearly every store.
Walmart, the nation's largest private employer, provides a window into OSHA's performance during the pandemic. Many of the retailer's nearly 1.6 million U.S. workers are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to income disparities, racial discrimination or language barriers. They depend on OSHA to guarantee safe and healthy workplaces.
But the worker-safety system is fragmented, reporting from the University of Maryland, Boston University, the University of Arkansas and Stanford University found.
Responsibility is splintered among federal OSHA, state agencies and even local boards of health. As a result, there is little accountability for the failure of government watchdogs to keep workers safe from COVID-19.
The consortium documented that worker safety oversight rarely results in meaningful consequences for companies that aren't protecting workers. In Massachusetts, Walmart challenged OSHA's investigation into the death of a worker. The company cited OSHA's pledge to "use discretion" in holding certain employers responsible for COVID-19 cases in the workplace, and wasn't penalized.
When workers submit COVID-related complaints to OSHA, only a fraction lead to inspections, and even fewer result in a citation.
As of late March, 3% of closed COVID-19 complaints to federal OSHA offices deemed valid by the agency resulted in an inspection, 12.5% of which led to citations. The average penalty was $13,000; OSHA reduced over a third of the fines.
For Walmart, slightly fewer complaints resulted in inspections — 2.6%. No inspections led to a citation.
The Biden administration proposed an emergency temporary standard April 26 that would give OSHA greater power to enforce COVID-19 workplace-safety rules. Meanwhile, the cost of the 14-month delay since the pandemic began can be tallied in deaths and thousands of worker illnesses.
In Grants Pass, Oregon, in 2020, Walmart workers and customers filed over 24 complaints about the lack of COVID-19 safeguards with the state worker-safety agency. Yet between December and March, at least 18 people were infected in an outbreak linked to the Walmart.
Karla Holman worked customer service at that Walmart until late January and heard about cases through workplace rumors, never from her employer. Walmart "was silent about it," Holman said.
Workers in other states also said Walmart concealed COVID-19 cases from employees.
Walmart spokesperson Scott Pope said "we communicate with associates in stores where there has been a confirmed case.''
"Any time you operate more than 5,000 facilities across the country there is the opportunity for variance in how a recommended process is executed," he said.
Since April 2020, OSHA has released an updated list, including company names, of complaints related to COVID-19 that the agency has deemed valid. In Colorado, approximately 98% of workplaces with reported COVID-19 outbreaks did not appear on that list as of March.
Twenty-one states have their own OSHA plans overseeing private businesses. They must meet all the federal standards but can impose stricter rules if they choose.
In those states, the rate of complaints was five times higher than in states where the federal government exclusively oversees workplace safety.
More complaints don't guarantee more inspections. In Oregon, which is among the states with the most COVID-19 complaints for Walmart, only one complaint led to an inspection. As of March 24, at least 10 Walmart locations in the state were linked to outbreaks with over five cases, including a Hermiston distribution center linked to 124 recorded cases, the consortium found.
A study in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, found that infection rates were significantly higher at a grocery retail store than the surrounding community. Moreover, it said store workers who had direct contact with customers were five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than workers who did not.
Rebecca Reindel, the AFL-CIO's director of occupational safety and health, said the public-health response focused on "cheaper measures," such as masks and hand sanitizer, which shifted the burden of protection onto workers themselves.
It is difficult to know the full extent of COVID-19 in Walmart stores. The company tracks, but does not publicly disclose, COVID-19 cases. Federal OSHA does not track COVID-19 outbreaks. And state agencies responsible for tracking outbreak data rarely disclose it.
When they do, state practices vary widely. Only some release names of companies with COVID-19 outbreaks, and there is no consistent definition of how many cases constitute an outbreak.
Walmart spokesperson Casey Staheli said the company instituted a range of policies, including mask requirements for associates and customers, limiting store hours and capacity, deep cleanings, screening associates' health, installing plastic guards and implementing social distancing in all facilities.
Workers said what's on paper often doesn't match the real world.
Of 10 Walmart employees in five states interviewed by the Howard Center, just three said they felt safe from COVID-19 exposure at work.
Some workers said they face retaliation if they complain about safety conditions.
Lorinda Dudley was fired from a St. Albans, Vermont, Walmart in March 2020 after asking her manager for protective gear, according to a lawsuit she filed against Walmart in February. She was frightened after a customer coughed repeatedly at her checkout station.
Dudley said her manager rejected her requests, then terminated Dudley when she said she would need to buy her own protection before returning to the register. Walmart tried to block Dudley's unemployment claim, saying she quit, Vermont Department of Labor records show.
"I just wanted to be safe,'' Dudley said.
Walmart denies Dudley's allegations and plans "to defend the company in court," said Pope, Walmart's spokesperson.
Federal OSHA has "no consistent means" to determine if violations reported by state plans are COVID-related, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson, who would not be quoted by name, told the Howard Center.
As a result, there is no detailed national picture of how well the agency is protecting workers during the pandemic.
OSHA's inaction has shifted some enforcement responsibilities onto local health departments, many of which are already overwhelmed.
"It just became the theater of the absurd,'' said Shaun McAuliffe, director of the Hopkinton, Massachusetts, Board of Health. "They were just dumping onto the local health directors. We didn't have the time... We didn't have the training.''
The Department of Labor spokesperson said OSHA investigates every complaint, but has modified its approach to allow "remote inspections and informal methods of enforcement" during the pandemic.
A February report from the Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General compared OSHA results from 2019 to 2020, finding "OSHA received 15% more complaints in 2020, but performed 50% fewer inspections.''
In lieu of on-site workplace inspections, "OSHA calls the employer, describes the alleged hazard(s), and then follows up with a fax, email, or letter," the report said.
Lani Eklund said her mother, Yok Yen Lee, was scared of contracting the virus. Lee, a 69-year-old Chinese immigrant, was a greeter outside the Quincy, Massachusetts, Walmart store, state workers' compensation records show.
During the second week of April 2020, Lee wasn't feeling well, Eklund said. On April 20, her daughter said Lee was found unresponsive in her apartment, then was rushed to the hospital and put on a ventilator. She died May 3.
OSHA records from May 7 show at least 16 other workers there also contracted COVID-19.
Walmart denied responsibility for Lee's death and contested her family's claim for workers' compensation, according to state records. Pope said "there isn't a way to scientifically show that the conditions of any facility definitively led to confirmed cases.''
Eklund said the company settled months after her mother's death for an amount that barely exceeded her funeral costs.
Lee's death also triggered an on-site OSHA inspection beginning May 8, 2020 at the Quincy store, which Walmart challenged, according to OSHA inspection records obtained by the Howard Center consortium.
The records show phone interviews were "interrupted and stopped prematurely" by Walmart officials when OSHA asked questions about Lee's death.
In response to a subpoena issued by regional OSHA investigators, Walmart cited OSHA headquarters' own COVID-19 guidance in objecting to any investigation into whether coronavirus cases were work-related, the records show.
That guidance, part of an April OSHA enforcement memo, applied to private employers not involved in health care, emergency response nor corrections. It said the employers may face difficulty in determining whether employees with COVID-19 caught it at work, and so OSHA would exercise "enforcement discretion."
On Dec. 30, 2020, OSHA closed its investigation of the Quincy Walmart. A Department of Labor spokesperson said "the inspection identified no violations of OSHA standards" and declined further comment. Records show no citation was issued.
In a February note to associates, John Furner, CEO and president of Walmart U.S., boasted about the company's "amazing'' increased sales.
"Thank you for an incredible year!" he wrote.
This story was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism in conjunction with investigative journalists at Boston University, the University of Arkansas and Stanford University. The Howard Center is an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer, Roy W. Howard.
GOP Convention Moved To Texas To Avoid Coronavirus Rules - Associated Press
The New Mexico Republican Party is moving their three-day convention and retreat this weekend to Amarillo, Texas, citing speakers' concerns over New Mexico's COVID-19 restrictions.
Mass gatherings in New Mexico are limited to 150 people or less in most counties. Restrictions are based on county-level infection and vaccination metrics, with the state planning to fully reopen once 60 percent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Texas lifted its mask mandate and restrictions on business in March. Amarillo's health department recommends mask use around vulnerable people, social distancing and and exercising caution during gatherings, but such public health measures are not required.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce told the Las Cruces Sun News that hundreds have registered to attend the state Republican event in Amarillo, dubbed "Operation Freedom." The convention's workshops will focus on local organizing efforts and problem-solving beyond the pandemic, Pearce said.
Notable figures planning to attend the event include South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. New Mexico Sen. Mark Moores, who is running to fill the seat formerly held by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, is slated to speak.
Firm's Record Spurs Concerns About New Mexico Utility Merger - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press
The track record of global energy giant Iberdrola's U.S. subsidiary Avangrid has sparked concerns among utility regulators and others as the company seeks approval for a multibillion-dollar merger with New Mexico's largest electric provider.
Ashley Schannauer, a hearing examiner with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, said during a meeting Tuesday that utilities owned by Avangrid have been assessed a total of $25 million in penalties and disallowances in the past 16 months for poor performance and customer service issues in Maine, Connecticut and New York.
While the information was disclosed in filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Schannauer said Avangrid has been less than forthcoming with New Mexico regulators. He said the company failed to provide information about the enforcement actions in the other states as the Public Regulation Commission considers the company's proposed merger with PNM Resources.
He also pointed to audits requested by regulators in Maine and Connecticut that are aimed at the organizational structure of Avangrid affiliates and utilities in those states.
He called the failure to disclose the information troubling, saying it's relevant to the credibility of testimony provided by Avangrid's witnesses in the merger case and the transparency by which Avangrid and PNM would conduct their business if the merger is approved.
"These enforcement actions are clearly relevant to the commission's consideration of the request in this case in my opinion. Will there be similar problems in New Mexico if the merger is approved?" he asked.
Brian Haverly, an attorney for Avangrid, said the company has nothing to hide and will provide the information requested by the hearing examiner. The deadline was set for next Tuesday.
Staff members with the Public Regulation Commission in a filing Friday reiterated their concerns about the proposed merger. At issue is whether the deal is in the public's interest.
Some critics have said a proposed settlement agreement between Connecticut-based Avangrid and PNM Resources — the parent company of Public Service Co. of New Mexico — doesn't go far enough when it come to customer benefits or funds to support economic development in the state.
PNM and Avangrid announced concessions in April after their initial proposal failed to win the necessary support. The latest proposal includes $50 million in rate credits for customers, economic development donations of $7.5 million, additional money for energy efficiency assistance for low-income customers over five years, and promises of more jobs and being carbon-free by 2035.
Still, attorneys for some of the parties pointed Tuesday to Avangrid's regulatory troubles, saying New Mexico customers deserve to be protected and that more is at stake here because PNM is a vertically integrated utility that owns its own transmission and generation infrastructure in addition to selling electricity to customers.
Peter Gould, an attorney for the New Mexico Affordable Reliable Energy Alliance, accused Avangrid of not negotiating in good faith. He said not providing New Mexico regulators with information about the enforcement actions is just one example.
"We have had very much difficulty in this case dealing with this company because they do not seem to understand that they have to play by the rules," he said.
State Attorney General Hector Balderas, who serves as the top consumer advocate for New Mexicans, signed off on the proposed settlement agreement in April, saying improvements were made that would prioritize underserved tribal communities and provide more resources for union workers and coal miners affected by the planned closures of two coal-fired power plants in northwestern New Mexico.
Matt Baca, a spokesman for Balderas, said Tuesday that the attorney general will advocate for strong consumer protections as the case proceeds.
"New Mexico must have the highest customer service standards in addition to greater investment in impacted communities," he said.
New Mexico Reinstates Requirement For Jobless To Seek Work – Associated Press
New Mexico has joined several other states that have reinstated the work search requirement for people who receive unemployment payments.
Starting this week, state labor officials said claimants must verify that they have made at least two work search contacts per week to continue receiving the jobless payments. They must provide information on when they contacted employers about prospective jobs, what type of work it was and other details.
The requirement had been waived during the pandemic as unemployment rates surged due to businesses closures and cutbacks to meet the state's public health restrictions. The change came as all but two New Mexico counties are now operating in the categories with the least COVID-19 restrictions.
"Help wanted" and "hiring now" signs are posted outside gas stations and at grocery stories and fast-food drive thru windows around New Mexico as business owners scramble to find workers.
Nationwide, U.S. employers posted a record number of available jobs in March, illustrating the desperation of businesses seeking to find new workers amid an expanding economy.
Michael O'Donnell, the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research acting director, told the KOAT television station that the idea behind reinstating the work search requirement is to give people an incentive to look for work.
"Given that there are reportedly tons of jobs available, more than perhaps people had expected, it make sense to revert back," he said.
New Mexico's unemployment rate stands at 8%, one of the highest in the country, and officials are hoping the change will help.
Meanwhile, New Mexico's vaccination rates are ticking up.
The latest data from the state Health Department show about 48% of residents over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others hope the state can reach the goal of 60% next month, but parts of southeastern New Mexico and some rural counties in central New Mexico are lagging as not everyone wants to get vaccinated.
State officials on Tuesday announced that businesses, nonprofits, religious congregations, community centers and other organizations can request on-site vaccination events through a new page on the Health Department's website.
Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said the department is committed to making vaccines available to New Mexicans where they live and work.
"By offering organizations the opportunity to request on-site vaccination events, we'll make getting a shot even easier," she said.
State Health Agency Cites Multiple Outbreaks Of Norovirus – Associated Press
New Mexico public health officials say they're investigating multiple outbreaks around the state of highly contagious disease often called the stomach flu.
Precautions such as frequent handwashing are advised to prevent norovirus infection, the Department of Health said Tuesday in a statement, adding that hand sanitizer does not work against norovirus.
According to the department, it's important that precautions be taken around the very young, the elderly and people at any age with weakened immune systems because they are at risk for more serious illness from norovirus infection.
Norovirus symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and it spreads easily from person to person, the department said.