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WED: Navajo Leaders seek hearing on oil and gas drilling dispute

Eric Draper
Associated Press
In this Nov. 21, 1996, file photo, tourists cast their shadows on the ancient Anasazi ruins of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

Navajo leaders seek hearing on oil and gas drilling dispute - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Top officials with the largest Native American tribe in the United States are renewing a request for congressional leaders to hold a field hearing before deciding on federal legislation aimed at limiting oil and gas development around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The Navajo Nation has struggled for years with high poverty rates and joblessness, and the tribe's legislative leaders say individual Navajo allottees stand to lose an important source of income if a 10-mile (16-kilometer) buffer is created around the park as proposed. They're calling for a smaller area of federal land holdings to be made off limits to oil and gas development as a compromise to protect Navajo interests.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon and other council members recently sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy outlining their concerns about pending legislation and the need to fund a comprehensive study of cultural resources throughout the region.

They said a field hearing would allow congressional leaders to "'hear directly from the Navajo people who face a real threat" under the current version of legislation. While the measure wouldn't directly affect tribal or allottee land, allottees fear their parcels would be landlocked by a federal ban, making them undesirable for future development.

A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert floor.

Outside the park, archaeologists say there are discoveries still to be made.

Other tribes, environmental groups and archaeologists have been pushing to stop drilling across an expansive area of northwestern New Mexico, saying sites beyond Chaco's boundaries need protection and that the federal government's leasing program needs an overhaul.

The Navajo Nation passed its own legislation in 2019 recognizing the cultural, spiritual and cosmological connection that Navajos have to the Chaco region. The measure expounded on the need for protections, but it also called for respecting and working with Navajo allottees.

The fight over development in the region has spanned several presidential administrations on both sides of the political aisle. Past administrations — including the Trump and Obama administrations — put on hold leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but activists are pushing for something more permanent that won't be upended by a future administration.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet position, was among the sponsors of legislation calling for greater protections during her tenure in the U.S. House. A member of Laguna Pueblo in central New Mexico, Haaland has referred to the area as a sacred place.

She's now under growing pressure to use her administrative powers to establish a buffer around the park pending the outcome of the federal legislation.

Several New Mexico pueblos, Navajo Council Member Daniel Tso and environmental groups also have sent letters to U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, voicing their support for the Chaco legislation. The first-term Democratic congresswoman also has spoken with Navajo leaders about her position on the matter.

Leger Fernández said Wednesday she's committed to cultural preservation. She said once those resources are lost, they're gone forever.

"We've been engaged in tribal consultation throughout and will continue conversations with Navajo Nation and the pueblos, as well as the Navajo allottees to protect allottees' rights to develop their land as they see fit," she said.

New Mexico audit finds gaps in ADA compliance at state sites Associated Press

An audit of a sampling of state government parking lots found numerous shortfalls in compliance with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act but remedial steps, officials said.

State Auditor Brian Colon on Tuesday released findings from the audit that included checking 23 sites in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces and other sites across the state.

"All New Mexicans should have equal access to their government, and that means physical spaces such as buildings owned by the state of New Mexico," Colon said.

Anna Silva, a General Services Department administrator who overseas state facilities, said changes that included restriping and other work have already been made at the sites examined by auditors.

Department spokesman Thom Cole said the agency plans to ask the Legislature for $275,000 to hire three building inspectors and $5 million to make state buildings ADA-compliant.

Advocates want interpreters for more languages in New Mexico - Associated Press

An advocacy group for disadvantaged communities in New Mexico says more language translation and interpreter services are needed for people who don't speak Spanish or English.

The Center on Law and Poverty on Tuesday asked a state District Court judge to intervene and order more robust services in languages such as Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Diné. The group warns that some foreign language speakers are likely to be missing crucial health and nutritional support that they are eligible to receive.

"Thousands of New Mexicans speak languages other than English and face systemic barriers to food and medical assistance because application documents are not provided in their language," the center said in a court filing. "This causes delays and denials of assistance for which families qualify."

The complaint notes the pending resettlement in New Mexico of about 300 Afghans who recently fled their homeland with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces and diplomats.

The findings are disputed by the state Human Service Department, which oversees food stamps, Medicaid and emergency assistance for people living in poverty or on the cusp.

In a statement Tuesday, the agency says it already provides benefit application materials in languages other than English and Spanish and provides interpretation services to applicants who need assistance.

Human Services Department spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter said the agency opposes further court intervention and the agency is in compliance with federal translation and interpretation requirements.

At the same time, the Center on Law and Poverty cites specific examples of inadequate language services that flout federal requirements, alleging that the Human Services Department unfairly turned away a Vietnamese-speaking mother of a 13-year-old son when she struggled to understand written instructions in English.

Groups worry about New Mexico governor's hydrogen hub plan - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

A coalition of environmental groups are raising concerns about Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's plans to turn New Mexico into a hydrogen fuel hub.

The Democrat, who is running for reelection, has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at least 45% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.

The Natural Resource Defense Council, the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and two dozen other organizations argue in a letter sent Tuesday to the governor and other top elected officials that large-scale development of hydrogen risks incentivizing new oil and natural gas fields. 

Hydrogen fuel cells can power vehicles to reduce transportation emissions, but most energy used to produce hydrogen comes from natural gas. Some are hopeful that hydrogen can be produced by using electricity generated from solar or wind power to separate hydrogen and oxygen in water. 

However, the letter warns of excessive water use in a state where the commodity is already scarce.

The groups urged the governor to focus on wind and solar energy instead.

Lujan Grisham has expressed interest in speaking at a climate change conference next month. Earlier this year, she asked Biden to exempt oil and gas producers in New Mexico from a drilling moratorium. 

In a speech this week to oil and gas executives, Lujan Grisham invited them to join her in partnerships for hydrogen production in the coming decades.

The U.S. Energy Department in July allocated more than $50 million to a number of projects in support of the agency's hydrogen initiative.

Albuquerque resolution recognizes boarding school trauma - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The Albuquerque City Council has adopted a resolution that acknowledges ongoing generational trauma caused by U.S. Indigenous boarding school policies and formalizes a commitment to work with Indigenous communities toward reconciliation and healing. 

Councilors voted in favor of the measure during a meeting on Monday. Mayor Tim Keller is expected to sign the resolution on Indigenous People's Day.

The city has been researching the history of a public park where students of the former Albuquerque Indian School were believed to have been buried more than a century ago. Ground-penetrating radar will be used to study the site and another meeting was planned later this week to talk about how to keep moving forward.

"It really is kind of a first step for us as a city to move forward toward healing and also to be inclusive of all of our communities in Albuquerque and to understand some of the pain that people have lived with over the years of not knowing," Council President Cynthia Borrego said during the virtual meeting.

Indigenous activists became concerned earlier this year when a plaque memorializing the students from the former school vanished. They established a makeshift memorial of flowers and other offerings and demanded an investigation.

Nationally, the U.S. Interior Department is in the middle of its own investigation. The agency announced last week that it would begin tribal consultations as the next step of its review of the boarding school legacy. The feedback will help lay the foundation for future work to protect potential burial sites and other sensitive information. 

"Tribal consultations are at the core of this long and painful process to address the inter-generational trauma of Indian boarding schools and to shed light on the truth in a way that honors those we have lost and those that continue to suffer trauma," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

In Albuquerque, orange flags have been placed at the city park to signify the importance of the site as more permanent plans are worked out. Orange is the color used to symbolize the movement that is bringing more awareness to the troubled legacy of the boarding school system that sought to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society over many decades.

The Albuquerque Indian School was started in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church and came under federal control a few years later. The school closed in the 1980s, and the property was put into trust for New Mexico's 19 pueblos. The buildings eventually were torn down, and a tribal development corporation worked to make it a commercial hub.

The park is several blocks away. Only part of it is believed to contain human remains, and city officials said survey work done decades ago during a road construction project are the only maps they have that detail the boundaries of the former school's cemetery.

Dawn Begay, the city's tribal affairs coordinator, said during Monday's meeting that research into the site so far has determined that Navajo, Apache and pueblo students plus students from tribes in Arizona were probably buried at the site. She noted that many records were lost over the years and one of the effort's goals is to identify the students and their tribal affiliations.

Chaves County escapee caught in Roswell home after standoff - Associated Press

A man who escaped Sunday night from the Chaves County jail is back in custody after being captured in a Roswell house following an hours-long standoff late Monday with officers from several agencies, authorities said.

Daniel Cobos, 37, was found in a room under a blanket after a SWAT team deployed gas canisters and entered the home, officials said.

According to online court records, Cobos awaits trial in several cases on charges that include attempted armed robbery and resisting arrest.

Cobos escaped from the jail after entering an unlocked bathroom, crawled through the ceiling and slipped through a gap in a fence, officials said.

​​Man who obtained $234K in fraudulent tax refunds sentenced - Associated Press

A Florida man has been sentenced to over four years in federal prison for filing hundreds of fake tax returns in several states, including Oregon, federal prosecutors said. 

Damian Barrett of Homestead, Florida, filed 745 fake tax returns in 19 different states from 2015 to 2018, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. 

Barrett, 40, owned two Florida-based tax preparation companies, Max Tax Experts LLC and Winngate Tax Services LLC, according to court documents. He used the first company to submit tax returns for legitimate clients and the second company to submit fraudulent income tax returns.

Barrett sought nearly $900,000 in fraudulent tax refunds and received over $234,000 — $130,000 of which came from the Oregon Department of Revenue. He had filed 348 tax returns with the state requesting more than $322,000 in refunds.

He also intentionally excluded more than $21,000 in income from his personal income tax return in 2016 and didn't file a personal income tax return in 2017.

In 2020, a federal grand jury in Portland indicted Barrett on mail fraud and laundering. He was later charged with mail fraud, filing a false tax return and aggravated identity theft. He pleaded guilty to all three charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon sentenced Barrett to 54 months in prison followed by three years of probation, according to prosecutors.

Simon also ordered Barrett to pay more than $234,000 in restitution to 11 states, including the taxing authorities in New Mexico, Arizona, Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina, and more than $74,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, prosecutors said.

Navajo Nation reports no COVID-19 deaths for 6th day in row - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 22 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the sixth consecutive day.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 34,194 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The known death toll remains at 1,447.

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

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

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees had 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 did not show proof of vaccination by the deadline must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.