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THURS: Half Of New Mexicans Now Fully Vaccinated, Auditor Colón To Run For AG, + More

Megan Kamerick / KUNM
Vaccine clinic at The Pit at University of New Mexico


Health Officials Say Half Of New Mexicans Now Fully VaccinatedAssociated Press

New Mexico is now administering the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 to children ages 12 to 15, as state health officials pushed Thursday for more people to get vaccinated.

The move by the state Health Department follows authorizations this week by the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state is encouraging families to register children on its vaccine website.

The expanded availability applies only to the Pfizer vaccine, which until now was only available to people ages 16 and older. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for people 18 and older.

State officials say more than half of eligible residents are now considered fully vaccinated.

The goal is to hit 60% next month, but vaccination rates for some parts of the state — including southeastern New Mexico and rural areas in central New Mexico — are trailing because not everyone wants a shot.

The state has been trying incentive vaccination. On Thursday, health officials said employers are entitled to tax credits through the federal government for providing paid leave to employees who take time off related to COVID-19 vaccinations. They also have set up a website where organizations and local groups can request vaccinations clinics.

Washington State Nuclear Site To Delay Moving Waste Off-SiteAssociated Press

The U.S. Department of Energy and its regulators have proposed extending the deadline to ship waste contaminated with plutonium off the decommissioned Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.

The proposal moves the deadline back 20 years — from 2030 to 2050 — to ship the waste to a national repository in New Mexico for permanent disposal, the Tri-City Herald reported  Wednesday.

"We realized that the existing milestone dates were unachievable," said John Price, a manager with the state Department of Ecology, which is a regulator for the nuclear site.

The Hanford nuclear reservation produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War and World War II, leaving 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks. The 580-square-mile site is located in Richland, Washington about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.

Price also said there were some newly proposed deadlines that the Department of Ecology "enthusiastically" supports, including a commitment by the Department of Energy's to start shipping some waste as early as 2028.

The federal agency and its regulators — the Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — set waste cleanup plans and deadlines for the nuclear site.

The latest proposed deadlines cover suspected transuranic waste, or debris contaminated with plutonium, including about 11,000 containers stored at a Hanford complex.

Waste with artificially-made elements above uranium on the periodic table is also classified as transuranic.

A public meeting to discuss the latest proposed changes and answer questions was scheduled for Thursday.

New Mexico Auditor Colón To Run For State Attorney General - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced his candidacy Thursday for the office of state attorney general.

The Democrat wants to follow in the footsteps of friend Hector Balderas, who is wrapping up his second term as New Mexico's top prosecutor and consumer advocate. Balderas also served as state auditor before being elected attorney general and the two previously worked for the same law firm.

Colón, 51, is the first person to enter the race for the open seat that has been dominated by Democrats for the better part of a century. Republicans have held the office only three times in the state's nearly 110-year history.

Colón sees the campaign as an opportunity to "take the next step," saying his motivation is rooted in his experience growing up in New Mexico and his desire to serve his community. He recalled the struggle of being poor and as a teenager having to take on the role of caring for his mother and siblings when his father died at a young age.

He described himself as a fighter, saying he wants to protect New Mexico families and that public safety will be among his top priorities.

"We can't have prosperous communities until we have safe communities. We are limiting our potential in New Mexico," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've enjoyed some great success but I'm convinced that success has still been limited. I want to make sure that New Mexico is known as a place where consumer protection is important and that public safety is No. 1."

A former chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, Colón won the race for auditor in 2019, ending a political drought for him. Campaigns for lieutenant governor in 2010 and for Albuquerque mayor in 2017 were unsuccessful.

As auditor, Colón has been in charge of ensuring that the finances of government agencies, school districts, universities and other public organizations that receive tax dollars are examined annually. That work is often done by independent auditors overseen by the state auditor.

The office also promotes transparency and conducts special investigations. Its mantra has been to stamp out fraud, waste and abuse.

The office has been involved in the state's overhaul of its guardianship and conservator program, investigated management issues at hospital in McKinley County at the height of the pandemic and reviewed claims of alleged financial wrongdoing at Spaceport America.

Colón said he believes his work as an attorney over two decades and his time at the auditor's office have prepared him for the kind of work done by the attorney general's office.

That will include consumer protections as the state moves forward with its energy transition plans, a lawsuit against the federal government over contamination at military bases and the battle before the U.S. Supreme Court with Texas over management of the Rio Grande.

Colón acknowledged that water resources are shrinking across the arid West and that the best option would be to work with others to come up with a strong water-sharing plan rather than spending more money on litigation. Still, he said if agreements can't be reached, he will fight for New Mexico's interests.

He said his overall mission would be giving people access to justice.

"There are 2.1 million New Mexicans who deserve to have faith in their community and the idea that they can raise their families in a safe space," he said, "but so many families are suffering and they're scared and they need a fighter and I'm that guy."

Colón earned an undergraduate degree in finance from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and graduated from law school at the University of New Mexico.


This story corrects an earlier version that Colón and Balderas worked at the same law firm but did not at the same time.

Navajo Nation Reports 14 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More DeathAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 14 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

It was the first reported coronavirus-related death in four days. Tribal health officials say the latest figures pushed the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 30,677 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll now is 1,286. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated, but people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

Nez said health care facilities on the Navajo Nation have begun to vaccinate adolescents in the 12-to-15 age range and some large-scale drive-thru vaccination events will be held Saturday.

"Our goal is to have at least 5,000 adolescents vaccinated by this weekend," said Nez, who accompanied his 13-year-old son to Gallup Indian Medical Center on Thursday to receive his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Fire Officials Aim To Douse Blazes Fast, Avoid Megafires - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

U.S. officials said Thursday they will try to stamp out wildfires as quickly as possible this year as severe drought tightens its grip across the West and sets the stage for another destructive summer of blazes.

By aggressively responding to smaller fires, officials said they hope to minimize the number of so-called megafires that have become more common as climate change makes the landscape warmer and dryer.

A similar approach was taken last year, driven by the pandemic and a desire to avoid the large congregations of personnel needed to fight major fires. Nevertheless, 2020 became one of worst fire years on record with more than 10 million acres (4 million hectares) of land scorched and almost 18,000 houses and other structures destroyed, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics.

California and the Pacific Northwest were especially hard-hit, including an unprecedented million-acre (400,000-hectare) fire in northern California. Wind-driven conflagrations in Oregon and Washington state burned into urban areas and triggered massive evacuations.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told firefighting personnel Thursday to brace themselves for another challenging year amid  what scientists describe as one of the West's deepest droughts in more than 1,200 years.

Haaland and Vilsack wrote in a memo to fire leaders that 90% of the West is in drought.

"These conditions have not only increased the likelihood of wildfires but they have also strained water supplies and increased tensions in communities," they wrote.

Officials also offered details on the Biden administration's plan to "change the trajectory" of increasingly dangerous wildfires in the West, by vastly expanding the amount of land where tree thinning, controlled burns and other measures are used to reduce flammable material.

The Forest Service plans to at least double the amount of land receiving such treatments to 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) annually — an area bigger than New Hampshire — and possibly up to 12 million acres (4.9 million hectares), spokesperson Babete Anderson said.

Large fires were active Thursday in Arizona, California and New Mexico. More than a half-million acres already have burned this year nationwide. The year-to-date figure is well below the 10-year average. But the worsening drought is expected to bring increased fire danger that will spread from the Southwest into California, Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains by summer, officials said.

"Our focus is on smart firefighting, aggressive firefighting, catching these fires when they are small," said Patty Grantham, acting director of fire and aviation at the U.S. Forest Service.

A shortage of resources last year hobbled firefighting efforts for more than two months  at the height of the season. Twelve people involved in firefighting efforts were killed as were at least 45 civilians in Oregon and California, federal officials said.

Firefighters are able to put out about 98% of fires before they get out of control, according to federal officials. It's the remaining 2% that cause most damage in terms of homes destroyed, said Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire researcher at Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics.

Yet more homes continuously are being built in fire-prone areas. Throw in climate change, and it's a recipe for destruction. Of the more than 89,000 homes and structures that have burned in wildfires since 2005, almost two-thirds were destroyed in the past four years, according to data compiled by Barrett.

"As wildfires gain in intensity and speed — what is referenced as extreme wildfire behavior — they are becoming much more difficult for firefighters to suppress," she said.

Barrett said now is the time of year for homeowners to take basic steps that improve their property's chances of surviving fire, such as getting woody debris off the roof and away from the house, and trimming back trees. Also keep a bag packed and evacuation route lined up if a quick escape is needed, she said.

The federal government spends roughly $2 billion to $3 billion annually attacking wildfires using firefighters, bulldozers, aircraft and other heavy equipment. The administration is seeking a nearly 40 % increase, to $1.7 billion, in additional funds for managing fire dangers through thinning, controlled burns, and related projects.

Vilsack said forest treatment work can cost roughly $1,500 per acre, versus $50,000 per acre to put out a fire.

"We need to do a better job treating our forests, reducing hazardous fuels buildup that's occurred over decades," he said.

But fire ecologist and environmental advocate Tim Ingalsbee said the government still is sinking too much money into putting out fires by attacking them directly. More wildfires should be allowed, especially in low-risk areas and in wetter months, to burn off underbrush and other fuels before they become so dense that stopping a fire becomes impossible, he said.

"They may stomp on a fire and put it out quick, and then next time when that area burns it burns even more severely, because climate change keeps ratcheting it up," Ingalsbee said.

In-Person Graduations Planned Amid New Mexico Vaccine Push - 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.

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. 

Albuquerque Police Investigating A Triple Homicide Case - Associated Press

Police in Albuquerque say they are investigating a triple homicide. 

They say officers responded around 3 p.m. Wednesday to reports of multiple gunshot victims arriving in a vehicle to Presbyterian Kaseman Hospital in northeast Albuquerque. 

Police say two people were dead inside the vehicle and another died after paramedics were unsuccessful in life-saving measures. 

The names and ages of the three people weren't immediately released. 

Police say it's unclear where the victims were shot before they were driven to the hospital. 

Detectives have not released information about any potential suspects, but say they are questioning a person of interest in the triple homicide case.


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.

Navajo Nation Has No COVID-related Deaths For 3rd Day In Row - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 20 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the third consecutive day.

Tribal health officials said the latest figures pushed the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 30,662 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll remains at 1,285.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated, but people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

Several health care facilities on the Navajo Nation will begin offering the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents as early as Thursday, while others will begin on Friday and Saturday. 

"We are working with all of the health care facilities on the Navajo Nation to rollout the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-old adolescents as quickly and efficiently as possible," Nez said in a statement Wednesday. "Our goal is to administer the first dose to at least 5,000 adolescents in the 12-to-15-year age group by this weekend."

US Cities See Surge In Deadly Street Racing Amid Pandemic - By Andrew Selsky  Associated Press

Jaye Sanford, a 52-year-old mother of two, was driving home in suburban Atlanta on Nov. 21 when a man in a Dodge Challenger muscle car who was allegedly street racing crashed into her head-on, killing her.

Sanford was remembered by friends as kind and thoughtful, but now she will also be remembered for something else: a new state law that requires jail time for all convictions for drag racing and stunt driving.

Across America, illegal drag racing has exploded in popularity since the coronavirus pandemic began, with dangerous upticks reported from Georgia and New York to New Mexico and Oregon.

Street racers block roads and even interstates to keep police away while they tear around and perform stunts, often captured on videos that go viral. Packs of vehicles, from souped-up jalopies to high-end sports cars, roar down city streets, through industrial neighborhoods and down rural roads.

Experts say TV shows and movies glorifying street racing had already fueled interest in recent years. 

Then shutdowns associated with the pandemic cleared normally clogged highways as commuters worked from home. 

Those with a passion for fast cars often had time to modify them, and to show them off, said Tami Eggleston, a sports psychologist who participates in legal drag racing.

"With COVID, when we were separated from people, I think people sort of bonded in their interest groups," said Eggleston, who is also the provost of McKendree University, a small college in suburban St. Louis. "So that need to want to socialize and be around other people brought the racers out."

But people have been killed. The snarl of engines and traffic tie-ups have become huge annoyances. Racers have been reported wielding guns and strewing beer cans in parking lots.

Now, police in many cities are stepping up enforcement, and states are fighting back with new laws.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill named for Sanford last week after it passed the General Assembly. Besides mandating at least 10 days of jail time for all drag racing convictions, the measure requires people convicted a third time within five years to forfeit their vehicles. 

"This illegal activity is very dangerous," the Republican governor said at a bill-signing ceremony. "Our goal is simple: to protect every family in every community."

In New York City, authorities received more than 1,000 drag racing complaints over six months last year — a nearly five-fold increase over the same period in 2019.

"Illegal street racing puts lives at risk and keeps us up at night," said New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman. "While there's been less traffic during the pandemic, some drivers have used this as an opportunity to treat our streets like a NASCAR speedway."

The Democratic lawmaker has introduced legislation that would authorize New York City to operate its speed cameras overnight and on weekends in hot spots for illegal street racing. The Senate Transportation Committee recently unanimously approved the measure, setting it up for a floor vote.

In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law in March a bill that allows state troopers to respond to incidents in cities. On New Year's Eve, drivers blocked traffic on an interstate highway in Jackson, the state capital, for an hour while they spun out and did donuts, etching circles in the pavement.

Even though the highway patrol headquarters was nearby, troopers couldn't respond because they were prohibited from handling incidents in cities with over 15,000 people. That prohibition will be lifted when the new law takes effect July 1.

In Arizona, the state Senate has passed a bill to impose harsher penalties. It now awaits a House vote. Under an ordinance approved in March by the Phoenix City Council, police can impound a car involved in street racing or reckless driving for up to 30 days.

Meanwhile, the death toll climbs. On the night of May 2, a 28-year-old woman was killed in Phoenix when a street racer crashed into her car. A man was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.

Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, handed out thousands of tickets for speeding and racing since a crackdown began in October.

"Racing up and down our streets is so deadly, especially while more kids, seniors, pedestrians and cyclists are out during this pandemic," said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

Street racing in an industrial neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, scares people who work there. A motorcyclist was killed last month in a crash that police said apparently involved racing. Business owners on April 2 wrote to the mayor and city commissioners, asking them to take action.

Kathryn, an employee in the neighborhood's Portland French Bakery, says the roadside and its 2-mile straightaway are littered with alcohol containers on Mondays after weekends of racing and stunts. Spray-painted lines mark start and finish lines. Parking lots are scarred by circular tire tracks or completely eroded in places by spinning tires.

"A lot of the employees are afraid to go anywhere near them, honestly. There's been a couple of shootings," said Kathryn, who didn't want her last name used because she was worried about possible retaliation from street racers.

Portland police say they're too overwhelmed to do much about it.

"The city of Portland has experienced an enormous increase in our shooting rate, a staggering amount of volatile demonstrations, while our staffing numbers have dwindled," said acting Lt. Michael Roberts, who is tasked with addressing illegal street racing. "We often do not have the bandwidth to address the street racer calls."

In Denver, police have deployed a helicopter to track races, closed lanes often used by racers and sent officers to places where racers meet. On April 3, a mother was killed when a street racer broadsided her car in downtown Denver.

In one of the most notorious incidents, hundreds of street racers clogged a stretch of interstate in nearby Aurora on March 7 while they raced and cruised. Police warned other motorists to stay away amid reports of guns being brandished and fireworks going off. 

The events have given more urgency to a long-standing effort by the Colorado State Patrol to lure street racers to a safer environment. The agency's "Take it to the Track" program features weekly contests at Bandimere Speedway, in the foothills west of Denver.

"You can bring out whatever you have, be it a supercar or mom's minivan, grandpa's Buick," Trooper Josh Lewis said at the racetrack last week. "And you can race a cop, and do so legally."

Lewis then beat a Toyota SUV on the quarter-mile track, reaching 88 mph in his Dodge Charger. 

Ray Propes, 58, started street racing when he was 16 but now prefers Bandimere Speedway for its traction and safety.

"You don't have to worry about accidents, animals, kids, birds, anything," he said.

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.

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