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MON: Feds Want To Relax Water Tests At Los Alamos Labs, Education Retirements Up 40% In NM, + More

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US Aims To Relax Testing Of Contaminants At Nuke Weapon Lab –Associated Press

The U.S. Energy Department wants to switch to less stringent testing for detecting cancer-causing chemicals at and around one of its premier nuclear weapons laboratories despite concerns from environmentalists and New Mexico regulators.

The federal agency is using New Mexico’s three-year review of surface water rules to push for a test at Los Alamos National Laboratory that’s more limited in detecting polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Medical research has shown the chemicals can cause cancer, impair children’s brain development, hurt reproductive systems and increase the chance of heart and liver diseases.

The Energy Department asserts that its testing would be sufficient and that the current method required by the state goes far beyond what’s necessary.

Parties in the dispute have submitted written arguments and testified at hearings held by the state Environmental Improvement Board as part of its review of surface water regulations done every three years.

Rachel Conn, project director for the Taos-based Amigos Bravos water conservation organization, bashed the proposed testing change as another attempt by the Energy Department to cut corners on safeguarding public health.

“It’s a shame that our taxpayer money is being used to lower the bar for protections for New Mexico waters and weaken our water quality standards,” she said.

The birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos National Laboratory has more than 130 miles of streams in and around its site, covering 36 square miles. How often it monitors for pollution can range from hourly to yearly and in some cases every five years.

In New Mexico, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues permits for discharges and stormwater runoff, and the state checks whether the water quality meets its standards.

John Toll, an Energy Department consultant, testified that the state’s required testing method was never officially approved by the EPA so New Mexico must use the EPA-backed test — what energy officials are proposing.

He also said the state, in turn, cannot require testing that detects amounts of PCBs lower than the minimum levels described in the federal guidelines.

Shelly Lemon, the state Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau chief, argued that states can adopt regulations that are more stringent than federal rules. More specifically, she wrote that state law doesn’t bar agencies from adopting standards that are stricter than the Clean Water Act.

Lemon noted that New Mexico’s current testing method is the only known one that can assess whether wastewater and other discharges comply with the state’s criteria as well as federal pollutant permit limits, including for PCBs. The tests are state approved and written into the regulations.

New Mexico residents, including those in Indigenous pueblos near the lab, benefit by having more information about the water they consume, not less, said Maggie Hart Stebbins, state natural resources trustee.

Education Retirements In New Mexico Up By 40% This Year - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Retirements of teachers and other public education employees in New Mexico spiked by 40% this year, and the pandemic is thought to be one of a number of possible causes for the spike, the Albuquerque Journal  reported. 

The state Educational Retirement Board reports handling 1,269 applications for July 1 retirement this year, up from 906 the year before and the largest number in seven years.

Albuquerque Public Schools reported a similar retirement wave among a group of employees that includes teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors.

July 1 is the start of the state fiscal year which often coincides with teacher contracts.

Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders, said the pandemic might be a factor, while Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Johanna King said exit interviews "show many reasons for retiring, including health reasons, feeling overworked, leaving New Mexico, and not liking remote teaching." 

Rep. G. Andrés Romero, chairman of the state House Education Committee, said the retirement spike is a concern and that officials will try to determine how to improve retention.

Romero said the rising cost of health insurance has been a topic of conversation among teachers, in addition to challenges caused by the pandemic.

No Classes For Rio Rancho Schools Due To Internet Outage – Associated Press

A New Mexico school district has canceled class because of an internet service outage.

Officials with Rio Rancho Public Schools made the decision not to hold classes Monday. They sent a letter to parents Sunday saying a damaged fiber optic circuit was causing the outage.

With no internet, some key systems that involve safety and student transportation would be at risk.

District officials say contractors are coming from out of state to do the repairs.

Classes are expected to resume Tuesday.

Oklahoma-Based Devon Energy Agrees To $6.15M Settlement – Associated Press

Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corporation has agreed to a $6.15 million settlement agreement with the federal government over allegations it underpaid royalties on federal leases, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Monday.

The settlement resolves allegations that Devon underpaid and underreported royalties from federal natural gas leases in Wyoming and New Mexico, the department said in a press release.

“The United States allows companies to remove gas from federal lands, which belong to all of us, in exchange for the payment of appropriate royalties,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton of the Justice Department’s Civil Division said in a statement. “This settlement demonstrates that the government will hold accountable those who take improper advantage of public resources.”

Devon disputed the federal allegations and did not admit liability as part of the agreement. A company spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message left by The Associated Press seeking comment about the settlement.

Army: Soldier Says She Was Assaulted By Afghan Refugees – Lolita Baldor, Associated Press

A soldier reported that she was assaulted by a small group of Afghan refugees at a shelter complex set up for the refugees in New Mexico, Fort Bliss officials said.

A Fort Bliss statement said the assault happened Sept. 19 at the Fort Bliss Doña Ana County Range Complex about 40 miles north of El Paso, Texas.

“We take the allegation seriously and appropriately referred the matter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said a Fort Bliss statement.

The soldier was reporting for her shift around midnight when three to four men attacked her, according to a U.S. Defense Department official. She had minor physical injuries and was able to get away. She was not sexually assaulted, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The official said that soldiers on duty operate with a buddy system, but the female soldier was just arriving and had not yet linked up with her buddy for the shift.

The official said that no one had yet been charged and that the FBI was investigating. It was unclear if law enforcement had identified the attackers.

The Fort Bliss statement said the woman was immediately provided “appropriate care, counseling and support” and that security measures at the complex were being strengthened.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, the New Mexico Republican representing the district where the complex is situated, said her staff was also investigating.

The U.S. government erected the complex in late August and early September to house thousands of Afghan refugees from the Taliban.

According to the Fort Bliss statement, all Afghan nationals are subjected to “a multi-layer screening and vetting process" before being admitted to the United States.

The process "involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals” from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and other intelligence community resources.

Santa Fe Mayor Attacks Rival For 'No' Vote On Mask Ordinance - Associated Press

Recriminations about face-mask mandates are creating new tension between Democratic candidates in the election campaign for mayor in Santa Fe.

In a flier distributed by mail Friday, incumbent Mayor Alan Webber highlighted a dissenting vote by mayoral candidate and City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler last year in the creation of a city ordinance requiring face masks, even outdoors, adding that Vigil Coppler cannot be trusted to be mayor.

The ordinance reinforced a statewide mask mandate from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, creating a separate petty misdemeanor. It was approved by a majority of the city council with the mayor's endorsement in the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines were available.

Vigil Coppler said Friday that she opposed the ordinance because of concerns that it would be unenforceable — while highlighting that she still supported the statewide mask requirements.

"I have never, ever been been against masks, and this is a distortion," Vigil Coppler said.

The ad from Webber's campaign says Vigil Coppler voted no on a "life-saving citywide mask ordinance."

"In the middle of a deadly pandemic, JoAnne Vigil Coppler had the chance to protect people's lives by supporting our citywide mask mandate. She voted no," the ad from Webber's campaign says.

A third candidate in the race, Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson was given a citation in July 2020 for refusing to wear a mask on Santa Fe's downtown plaza after being warned by police.

At the time, Martinez Johnson was in the midst of an unsuccessful campaign for Congress.

New Mexico currently requires face masks in public, indoor settings under a coronavirus health emergency declaration.

New Mexico Governor Tours Refugee Center, Talks Business - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham visited southern New Mexico on Friday to talk with fellow elected Democratic leaders and business groups about economic development and to tour a military base near the U.S.-Mexico border where Afghan refugees are being housed. 

The Democrat's visit was not made public until late in the afternoon. Her office said she walked through the processing area at Fort Bliss Army base, spoke with volunteers about the need for winter coats and other items for those at the facility and saw how the refugees were screened for COVID-19.

"Whenever the federal government tells us they need our help, New Mexico is ready to help these families on their way," Lujan Grisham said in a statement after the tour. 

There was no indication that Lujan Grisham visited the U.S.-Mexico border while in the area. She has faced criticism in recent months for not doing more to address the concerns of residents along the border amid the latest influx of immigrants. 

Republicans in New Mexico were disappointed earlier this week that she wasn't among the more than two dozen governors who signed a letter to President Joe Biden seeking a meeting about the problems that border states are facing.

Lujan Grisham, chair of the Democratic Governors Association and a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies, has said that those with concerns should direct them to the federal agencies working on the issue. 

Republican state Sen. Crystal Diamond said she and others had been asking for months that the governor visit with ranchers and others in the region. She said those pleas were ignored.

"She's not out there hearing the needs of constituents," Diamond said. "So right now we don't need candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham on the border, we need Gov. Grisham on the border who will act in her capacity as governor to provide us help."

Diamond noted that lawmakers held their legislative session earlier this year in a closed capitol with a fence around the building while the border remained open and immigrants arrived in the U.S. amid the pandemic. She said the health and safety of New Mexicans should be front and center.

"Border security isn't a partisan issue, but she has continued to make it so," Diamond said of the governor.

The governor's visit to southern New Mexico was billed by her office as a strategy session with business leaders and elected officials to talk about their concerns and how her administration can meet community needs. Meetings were held in the border community of Santa Teresa and nearby Las Cruces.

Lujan Grisham's administration has built on the work of former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration to grow cross-border trade and attract more businesses to the area. According to the state, several Taiwanese businesses have announced plans in the last two years to develop manufacturing space in Santa Teresa and create a North American footprint.

The state since 2019 has directed more than $10 million in local economic development funds to Doña Ana County businesses, resulting in over 1,000 jobs. About $11 million in state job training funds have supported more than 2,500 jobs.

Police: Albuquerque Woman Doused With Gasoline, Set On Fire - Associated Press

An Albuquerque woman is being treated at a burn center after her male roommate allegedly doused her with gasoline and lit her on fire, according to police.

Police said 39-year-old Lawrence Sedillo was booked into jail Saturday on suspicion of aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm. 

It was unclear Sunday if Sedillo has a lawyer yet who can speak on his behalf.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that court records show the 42-year-old woman suffered severe burns to her face, arms, chest and back.

The newspaper said she was flown to the burn center at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas.

The woman's name hasn't been released by police.

Air Force Base In New Mexico Tries To Speed Cleanup - By Theresa Davis  Albuquerque Journal

Cannon Air Force Base is starting work with nearby landowners to test their water and soil for a group of chemicals known as PFAS.

Tests will help the military determine where an underground contamination plume migrated off the base, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

But complex federal legal requirements have made the cleanup process of toxic chemicals that leaked into the Ogallala Aquifer frustratingly slow, Clovis dairy farmers and residents recently told Cannon officials.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, leaked into the ground from firefighting foam used in military training exercises. Similar problems have been reported at military bases and industrial sites across the country.

John Kern, director of the community group Clean Water Partnership at Cannon, said he is concerned that a short-term water treatment solution will not be operational until 2023.

"Much of the community considers that to be a woefully inadequate response to the problem," Kern said during Cannon's quarterly virtual public meeting.

Chris Segura with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center said the $16.6 million on-base project of three wells and a filtration system is a necessary step.

"This is bounded by law," Segura said. "Flexibility and our agility to be able to manage this under a different framework just is not there. So our hands are tied."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency links PFAS to cancers and low birth weights.

Col. Terence Taylor, who became commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon in June, said he understands that Department of Defense project timelines don't always "match up with the urgency" the community wants.

"My family lives here on the installation, as well as over 500 military families," Taylor said. "We're all interested in ensuring that we have clean, consumable water for the health and well-being of everyone. We are not looking for ways to halt progress. In fact, we're trying to speed things up as best we can."

The toxic plume spread in the aquifer from Cannon's southeast corner.

Art Schaap at nearby Highland Dairy euthanized at least 1,000 cows because of PFAS in the animals' meat and milk.

"I know that you guys are going to get to the bottom of this, and we're going to get to a resolution here someday," Schaap said. "I'm just wondering why we don't just have filters on all those contaminated wells that are being used right now to feed our animals, to water our crops, our homes. We've had to pay for all that ourselves."

New Mexico Community Schools Aim To Cover 'Every Basic Need' - By Miranda Cyr Las Cruces Sun-News

If you've seen one community school, you've seen one community school.

This no-one-size-fits-all mantra is intentional, said David Greenberg, executive director of the National Education Association of New Mexico's Center for Community Schools.

Since each community's needs are different, so is each community school.

Though each of the 80 community schools in New Mexico offer different services, their missions are the same.

Greenberg tells the Las Cruces Sun-News that mission is to "strategically leverage partnerships to be with local businesses and faith-based organizations or nonprofit organizations or different health providers to to meet the vision of the needs that the communities establish."

What he means is that if a community needs it, you'll find it at a community school, with services available to anyone beyond just when school is in session.

In one town, a community school helped facilitate the installation of solar panels in homes that wouldn't otherwise have access to electricity or running water; in another town, the community school became a food pantry; and in still another town a mom found a job through connections at the community school.

And if a community school doesn't have what you need, a staff member can find a service to help. Once those basic needs are met, the community can thrive, advocates say.

"Some people need help with food and clothes, some people need help with housing, some people need help with electricity. We really tailor the approach to an individual level," said Victoria Dominguez, a coordinator for Cuba Independent Schools, one of the most at-risk school districts in the state.

Advocates say community school strategies help the state fulfill it's directives in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit from 2018 that revealed at-risk children in New Mexico aren't getting the same level of education as their peers.

"The first step in really reinventing education is shifting who's at the table and in the room making decisions, and doing the deep listening that we need to do to understand (where) the people are at this point in time," Greenberg said.


What do community schools do?

Lucia Carrillo and her three young children — ages 8, 5 and 2 — live in Arrey, a small town south of Truth or Consequences. Carrillo also cares for her 15-year-old niece, all while working toward for her degree in Early Childhood Education at Doña Ana Community College and New Mexico State University.

Carrillo has watched the small town come together since Arrey Elementary School became a community school in 2019.

"More people are coming out to get the help and seek the help," she said.

Arrey Community Elementary has fewer than 100 students enrolled, according to community school coordinator Yolanda Tafoya. However, Tafoya said she provides services to over 180 families in the area.

Tafoya said she's learned more about the community in the year she's been the Arrey Elementary community schools coordinator than in the past 12 years working for Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools

"Those home visits, going in and actually seeing where the students are living, and what their needs are, have just opened my eyes tremendously," Tafoya said. "To know these are their struggles, (these are) some of the barriers that they may have. The reason we're here is all about students, helping them succeed. The only way that they can be successful in school, is make sure they have every basic need covered."

For residents of rural communities, those needs can be myriad and wide-ranging, from food to clothes to health care to internet and utility services.

When Tafoya realized that internet access was a huge problem for Arrey families, the community school provided computers, hotspots and other internet services. She said the school is also working on establishing a computer lab inside the school for anyone in the community.

This will help students like Carrillo access online classes, Tafoya said.

Tafoya has also worked for years to establish a food pantry in town, which she has now done thanks in part to the community school label.

"Instead of it being an entity or an individual or church, we were able to establish under the school district," she said.

Tafoya now receives weekly truckloads of food from Roadrunner Food Bank as well as donations from the local grocery stores in Arrey and nearby Hatch. She travels dirt roads to deliver food to 160 families — 600 individuals — weekly.

Cuba Independent Schools also provides food to residents through its community school. The school building now has racks of clothes that families have access to.

"The thing about Cuba is we're kind of in the middle of nowhere," said Dominguez, the community school coordinator. "We don't have a lot of resources, so rather than dwelling on the fact that we don't have a lot of resources, we just created created our own."

Dominguez said one of the families that uses the community school services lives about 45 minutes away. Often the family's grandma will come to pick up food or clothes for the 23 people living in that one house and breaks down crying due to gratitude.

Building that trust with the community is key to providing resources, Dominguez said.

"(We're) letting people know that we're in this together, we're gonna get through this together, we're here to support you," she said.

Dominguez said there are many families that don't have electricity or running water in the area. She said some have generators, but they are loud and expensive to sustain.

The week of Aug. 30, Cuba community schools helped facilitate the installation of solar panels in the homes of seven families, a program paid for by the the New Mexico Senate and the Indigenous Education Department.

"You just let us know what you need from us, and if we don't have resources, we're gonna find resources for you," she said.


Community schools in cities

Community schools also are in cities wherein the schools can rely more on partnering with already existing organizations in the area.

In Las Cruces Public Schools, the five community schools put a focus on outreach through after school programs.

MacArthur Community Elementary offers child care services, tutoring, professional development courses for staff, technology classes for adults and after school programs for students that they voted on themselves. MacArthur has also provided food, haircuts, school supplies and COVID-19 vaccines to community members.

LCPS community school families also receive free annual dental cleanings.

Similarly, at Sierra Community Middle School in Roswell, community members receive free dental cleanings from local offices and free vision exams and glasses at Walmart's vision clinic.

Sierra also has a brand new school-based health center that is open for general exams and behavioral health services.

"We are just now really kicking off community schools at Sierra," said Sierra Middle community schools coordinator Kristen Salyards. "I tell our leadership team that here at the school, when we do this — not if we do this, but when we do this — we will change lives. This has the potential and the possibility to change the lives of our students and their siblings and their parents."


Where does this funding come from?

Of the 80 community schools statewide, 33 are receiving state and federal funding, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department's most recent report on community schools.

All 33 are funded through the New Mexico Community Schools Act, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed in April 2019.

Community schools are often placed in areas of high poverty where services are most needed. Of the state-funded community schools, 16 are elementary schools, six are middle schools and six are high schools. The other five are charter schools serving K-8, K-12, K-2 and 6-12.

Through the Community Schools Act, $2 million was set aside for community school initiatives in New Mexico. Schools that are accepted for the grant receive $150,000 each year for a period of three years to get them started.

The thinking is after that three-year period, the community school would have sufficient roots and can rely on community partners and sponsors to continue its services.

In May, the PED issued 50 grants totaling $6.6 million to schools across New Mexico to plan for or to implement the community school strategy in the 2021-22 school year.

For the 2021-22 year, 21 new community schools were established and awarded planning grants ranging between $32,000 to $50,000.

According to LCPS district community school coordinator Amanda Barela, there is a sixth community school on the way in the district that will either be Mesilla Park Elementary or University Hills Elementary. She said both will become community schools eventually, but the district are working to decide who will get the funding through a $600,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Other funding can come from partners like Kellogg or other state and federal grants.


What can we expect in the future?

The potential for longevity of community schools is something New Mexico excels in, according to Jose Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, a national group that advocates for and supports the development of community schools. There are over 5,000 community schools in the U.S., with the majority being in New York and California.

Muñoz said New Mexico stands out because of the joint powers agreements that have been established between cities and districts in order to support community schools. Albuquerque Public Schools was the first to sign an agreement in 2007: the ABC Community Schools Partnership. The district now has 34 community schools.

In 2018, the City of Las Cruces and Las Cruces Public Schools signed an agreement modeled after the one in Albuquerque.

"A superintendent changes, a mayor changes, a county manager changes or something like that, but when you take the time and effort it takes to get a joint powers agreement, it doesn't change because it's recognized by the state and you are now an official entity," Muñoz said. "We're built for the long run if we can get some more joint partnership agreements that include tribal nations (and) how they work with their surrounding counties and cities."

It can be expected that more community schools will be established in New Mexico in the coming years.

In July, President Joe Biden proposed an increase of funding for community schools from $30 million to $443 million.

Muñoz said his organization has a goal for 25% of all public schools in the U.S. to be community schools by 2025. He said that would create a tipping point in education.

"Once we get to that 25%, it'll withstand any position, or any politician," Muñoz said.

Navajo Nation Reports 36 More COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Sunday reported 36 more COVID-19 cases and three more deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,780 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The known death toll now is 1,442.

Tribal health officials hadreported 40 new coronavirus cases and two deaths Friday and 22 cases with no deaths on Saturday.

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 this month 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.