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FRI: BLM Headquarters Back to DC, NM, TX Oppose Nuclear Fuel Storage,+ More

Evan Vucci
Associated Press
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington.

Land Agency Moving Back To DC, Reversing Trump-Era Decision – Matthew Daly, Associated Press

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is moving the national headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 245 million acres in Western states, back to the nation's capital after two years in Colorado.

The land management agency lost nearly 300 employees to retirement or resignation after President Donald Trump's administration moved its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2019.

The bureau has broad influence over energy development and agriculture in the West, managing public lands for uses ranging from fossil fuel extraction, renewable power development and grazing, to recreation and wilderness. Its staffing has remained in turmoil after four years without a confirmed director.

The agency's space in Grand Junction will become its western headquarters, Haaland said. The Grand Junction office will reinforce western perspectives in decision-making and "have an important role to play in the bureau's clean energy, outdoor recreation, conservation, and scientific missions,'' the Interior Department said in a news release.

The changes, which will be done in coordination with Congress, will improve the function of the land management agency, help provide clarity for the BLM's 7,000 employees across the country and enable the bureau to better serve the American public and fulfill its mission as the steward of nearly one-fifth of the nation's public lands, Haaland said.

"The Bureau of Land Management is critical to the nation's efforts to address the climate crisis, expand public access to our public lands and preserve our nation's shared outdoor heritage,'' she said in a statement.

"There's no doubt that the BLM should have a leadership presence in Washington, D.C. – like all the other land management agencies – to ensure that it has access to the policy, budget and decision-making levers to best carry out its mission,'' Haaland said. BLM's presence in Colorado and across the West will continue to grow, she added.

"The past several years have been incredibly disruptive to the organization, to our public servants and to their families,'' Haaland said, referring to actions by her predecessors, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, to move the BLM to rural Colorado, sparking criticism that the Trump administration intended to gut the agency that oversees vast tracts of public lands in the West. Hundreds of longtime employees chose not to move to Colorado. Only three workers ultimately relocated.

Haaland, who opposed the move as a member of Congress from New Mexico, visited the Colorado headquarters in July.

Zinke, Trump's first interior secretary, initiated the Colorado move, calling it a reorganization that put top agency officials closer to the nearly quarter-billion acres of public lands it oversees. The move was completed under Bernhardt, who succeeded Zinke in 2019.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and members of Colorado's congressional delegation have urged the Biden administration to keep the BLM based in Grand Junction. Democratic U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who invited Haaland to visit Grand Junction, has said the headquarters relocation was "done in haste" and let down the city, which hoped for an economic boost.

President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the bureau, former Democratic aide Tracy Stone-Manning, received no Republican support in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee vote on her nomination in July. The GOP has lambasted Biden's pick over alleged links to a 1989 environmental sabotage investigation.

Stone-Manning will face a full Senate vote in order to become the new director. It would take every Senate Republican plus at least one Democratic lawmaker to block her confirmation in the evenly divided chamber. Haaland, who would be Stone-Manning's boss, reiterated her full support for the nominee during her Colorado visit.

New Mexico Backs Texas In Opposing Nuclear Fuel Storage – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Top New Mexico leaders say they're open to "most anything" that would prevent spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste from being stored indefinitely in the state, including legislation like a measure recently adopted by Texas to prevent the shipping and storage of such waste.

The renewed criticism this week of planned temporary storage facilities in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico came as federal regulators just granted a license for the proposed operation in Texas.

Interim Storage Partners LLC plans to build a facility in Andrews County that could take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and 231 million tons of other radioactive waste.

In New Mexico, Holtec International is awaiting approval of its license application for a facility that initially would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over six decades.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and other top officials already have submitted comments in opposition to the multibillion-dollar proposal on their side of the state line and to the Texas project. New Mexico also is suing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, claiming it hasn't done enough to vet Holtec's plans.

Lujan Grisham's office said it would be open to exploring legislation and to seeking funding that could boost efforts by New Mexico regulators to push back administratively.

"We are open to most anything in preventing the placement of this kind of national high-level waste depository in New Mexico," Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, told The Associated Press in an email.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said the case against the NRC is in the early stages and he still has concerns.

"As a largely poor state and with communities predominantly of color, it is unacceptable to view New Mexico as a dumping ground for the country's nuclear waste," he said. "And the Department of Energy, Congress and the Legislature should absolutely do everything within their power to protect New Mexican families."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has a similar stance and tweeted this week that "'Texas will not become America's nuclear waste dumping ground."

Holtec said the New Jersey-based company and its partners in the New Mexico counties of Eddy and Lea are committed to completing the federal regulatory process for the proposed facility.

"Though we are mindful of the developments in Texas, the Holtec and ELEA (Eddy Lea Energy Alliance) project has strong support from local community leaders as they understand the proposed project is safe and will be an economic benefit to the area," said Joe Delmar, the company's senior director of government affairs and communications.

Texas and New Mexico fear the waste will be stranded in their states because the federal government has failed over decades to find a permanent disposal site.

According to the Energy Department, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there's nowhere else to put it.

The fuel is sitting at temporary storage sites in nearly three dozen states, either enclosed in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as casks.

In the 1980s, the Energy Department and Congress approved building a permanent underground burial site in Nevada. Officials there fought the project for years, and Congress eliminated funding for it in 2011. Federal approval was granted for a temporary dump in Utah in 2006, but it was never built.

New Mexico state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Democrat who heads the Legislature's Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, said passing new legislation would send "an unmistakable message" that the region is against becoming the repository for spent fuel.

The Biden administration has been vague at best with how it intends to address the problem, Steinborn said.

"What I would really like to hear is a commitment to go back to the drawing board on figuring out a permanent solution," he said. "Right now, we have a situation where the tail is wagging the dog, where national policy is being promulgated by a private company and a small handful of people who have decided this is a good business opportunity."

New Mexico Reports 5 Cases Of West Nile Virus Infections Associated Press

State health officials say they have identified five cases of West Nile virus infections across New Mexico and that wet weather may be a factor.

The Department of Health said Friday that no deaths have been reported so far this year but that the five cases were reported among residents of Bernalillo, Dona Ana and Taos counties.

According to the department, recent rains have left areas of standing water that make good breeding grounds for mosquitos that spread the disease.

The department recommends that residents regularly drain containers or places of standing water such as empty cans, clogged gutters and wading pools.

West Nile symptoms can include fever, headache, fatigue, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash.

More serious symptoms include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, disorientation, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness, and paralysis.

Conceptual Redistricting Maps Emerge From Citizens Board - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A citizens advisory committee to the New Mexico Legislature on political redistricting endorsed a set of conceptual maps Thursday to circulate for public comment.

The committee is forging toward an Oct. 15 deadline for outlining redistricting map proposals that will inform the Legislature's decisions later in the year. 

As of Thursday, the Citizens Redistricting Committee was still waiting to receive crucial recommendations from alliances of Native American communities. New Mexico has 23 federally recognized tribes.

"These concepts are built largely on the testimony we received," said Edward Chávez, a former state Supreme Court justice and chairman of the redistricting committee. "The public is still going to have the opportunity to comment on each of these concepts, to actually take one of these concepts and modify it."

The actual line-drawing will be done by the state's Democrat-led Legislature, which could hew to the committee's recommendations — or ignore the suggestions and use its overwhelming majorities to create districts that help Democrats win elections for years to come.

States, including New Mexico and Indiana, are using citizen advisory boards on redistricting to temper political inclinations without taking powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.

The New Mexico Legislature plans to convene in December to redraw boundaries for the state's three congressional districts, 112 legislative seats and a public education commission that oversees public charter schools.

Proposed adjustments to a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico are under special scrutiny. Last year, U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell ousted a first-term Democrat from the 2nd District seat.

The citizens committee advanced seven concepts for reshaping congressional districts. They all retain a compact central district in and around Albuquerque, with two sprawling districts that span the north of the state and the south.

"There was a significant population who spoke about maintaining the core of the existing districts, a lot of Hispanics from the north talking about northern New Mexico and the common culture of Native Americans and the Hispanics" said Brian Sanderoff, a pollster and consultant on the redistricting effort. "We heard people from Albuquerque saying that it is a community of interest."

This year marks the first time in at least 30 years that the redistricting process in New Mexico has been overseen by both a Democrat-led Legislature and Democratic governor. Republicans control the process in 20 states, including Florida, Texas and North Carolina.

The once-a-decade redistricting process has ramped up with the recent release of 2020 census data showing how populations have changed in neighborhoods, cities and counties since 2010.

U.S. House and state legislative districts must be redrawn to rebalance their populations. But mapmakers can create an advantage for their political party in future elections by packing opponents' voters into a few districts or spreading them thin among multiple districts — a process known as gerrymandering.

University Researchers Analyze Pretrial Releases Amid Debate - Associated Press

Amid debate over New Mexico's system of releasing felony defendants, University of New Mexico research indicates that just under 5% of Albuquerque-area defendants awaiting trial commit violent crimes while free from jail.

Findings from the university's Institute for Social Research's analysis of more than 10,000 felony cases in Bernalillo County also included that less than 1% of people on pretrial release were arrested for a first-degree felony while on pretrial release, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

A senior state courts official said the research indicates that the vast majority of defendants don't commit new crimes pending trial but the top prosecutor for Bernalillo County and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham say its still troubling that some defendants commit crimes while free.

Administrative Office of the Courts Director Artie Pepin said the research "validates the pretrial justice improvements underway in New Mexico,.""

District Attorney Raul Torrez said through spokeswoman Laura Rodriguez that the few violent crimes committed by people on pretrial release are "an unacceptable price for our community to pay." 

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said it "can still be utterly devastating to a family or a community" when 5% of felony defendants are arrested for a violent crime on pretrial release.

New Wargaming Facility Being Built For Air Force Laboratory - Associated Press

Construction has started at Kirtland Air Force Base for a new digital laboratory for advanced wargaming and other simulation and analysis work involving laser weapons and space vehicles.

The Air Force Research Laboratory' s $6 million Wargaming and Advanced Research Simulation Laboratory is intended to spur strategies involving innovation, speed and partnerships within the laboratory, said Col. Eric Felt, director of the Space Vehicles Directorate. 

"With digital engineering we can explore more concepts faster, without waiting for the "real thing" hardware," Felt said in a statement. 

According to Teresa LeGalley, the Directed Energy's program manager for wargaming modeling and simulation, the WARS Lab will include an auditorium with over 90 workstations with capability to collaborate with other Department of Defense agencies.

The lab is expected to be ready for occupancy in the spring of 2023, and will replace a facility more than 15 years old, officials said.

Navajo Nation Reports 54 More COVID-19 Cases, 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 54 more COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,394 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,428 known deaths from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.