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WED: WIPP to open new disposal area, first after radiation release + more

U.S. Department of Energy via AP
This undated image provided by the U.S. Department of Energy shows an electric continuous miner machine run by Randy Wilson, left, and Blas Castaneda, chewing through a wall of salt during the excavation of Panel 8 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

US nuclear repository completes key mining project—Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

After seven years of mining, federal officials say work to carve out the eighth disposal area at the U.S. government's underground nuclear waste repository is complete.

Managers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are planning to use the space beginning next year. Workers still need to run power to the excavated area known as Panel 8 and install air monitors and chain link to protect the walls.

Constructed in a deep layer of salt in southern New Mexico, the repository entombs the radioactive remnants of decades of nuclear research and bomb-making. That includes special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.

Having enough space for the waste became more of an issue in 2014, when a radiation release contaminated parts of the underground facility and forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure. Some parts of the repository became off-limits. The incident also delayed the federal government's cleanup program and prompted policy changes at national laboratories and defense-related sites across the U.S.

State regulators currently are weighing a permit change that some critics say could open the door to expanded operations at the repository. A decision is expected later this year.

The repository has been in operation for more than two decades, having received nearly 13,000 shipments. The idea is that the shifting salt will eventually encapsulate the waste after the underground vaults are filled and sealed.

Reinhard Knerr, a manager with the Department of Energy's Carlsbad Field Office, said the completion of Panel 8 was a long time coming but that it will be ready just in time. Panel 7 is expected to be full by April.

The rooms that make up Panel 8 are 300 feet (91 meters) long, 33 feet (10 meters) wide, and 15 feet (4.5 meters) high. Officials say laser measuring devices were used to guide the mining machines that cut the salt and large trucks were used to take the material to a hoist for transport to the surface.

Officials say more than 157,000 tons (142,428 metric tonnes) of salt were mined during the project.

The next project for the mining machines will be carving out drifts, or passageways, that will connect with a utility shaft that's under construction.

Contributions pour into partisan funds for legislators—Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Political donations are pouring into special campaign-related funds for New Mexico state legislators in a nonelection year.

The Brian Egolf Speakers Fund that bears the name of the Democratic House speaker on Tuesday reported contributions of just over $300,000 since late April.

Labor unions representing educators and electric-utility workers figured prominently among major donors to the fund to help elect Democratic House candidates.

Maximum or near-maximum contributions in the $25,000 range came in from oil giant Chevron, an organization of trial lawyers and one of the state's contracted Medicaid health care providers.

Those contributors have vested interests in a major oil-producing state with high rates of Medicaid enrollment and fledgling reforms that allow civil rights lawsuits against local government agencies in state court.

A fund overseen by House Republicans in the legislative minority also received a $25,000 contribution from Chevron, while receiving about $100,000 in all during the six-month period. Artesia-based oil magnate Peyton Yates provided the House GOP fund with $10,000.

So-called caucus committees were introduced in 2019 by state statute.

They can collect five times as much cash per donor as other New Mexico political committees, provide campaign strategy services in key legislative races and allow coordinated canvassing with campaigns for federal office.

Advocates for the system including Egolf say it provides greater transparency over collaborative efforts by candidates and political committees.

The fund for House Democrats overseen by Egolf received $15,000 from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee that seeks to establish or shore up Democratic majorities in statehouses across the country.

It also received a contribution from a partner at Egolf's private law firm. The State Ethics Commission in July dismissed a complaint that Egolf stood to gain from his backing of civil rights legislation that might benefit his business. Egolf has called the complaint an effort to distract efforts to enact new civil rights guarantees.

The caucus committee for Senate Democrats noted a single contribution of $25,000 from the North Fund, a Washington-based progressive political committee that bankrolled a successful recreational marijuana legalization effort in Montana last year. The fund for Senate Republicans raised roughly $10,000 from more than two dozen contributors.

Border residents rejoice as US says it will lift travel ban—Zeke Miller, Elliot Spagat, Associated Press

Beleaguered business owners and families separated by COVID-19 restrictions rejoiced Wednesday after the U.S. said it will reopen its land borders to nonessential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze.

Travel across land borders from Canada and Mexico has been largely restricted to workers whose jobs are deemed essential. New rules will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason starting in early November, when a similar easing of restrictions is set for air travel. By mid-January, even essential travelers seeking to enter the U.S., such as truck drivers, will need to be fully vaccinated.

Shopping malls and big box retailers in U.S. border towns whose parking spaces had been filled by cars with Mexican license plates were hit hard by travel restrictions.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the economic impact was hard to quantify but can be seen in the sparse presence of shoppers at a high-end outlet mall on the city's border with Tijuana, Mexico. The decision comes at a critical time ahead of the holiday shopping season.

In Del Rio, Texas, Mexican visitors account for about 65% of retail sales, said Blanca Larson, executive director of the chamber of commerce and visitors bureau in the city of 35,000 people.

"Along the border, we're like more of one community than two different communities," she said.

The ban has also had enormous social and cultural impact, preventing family gatherings when relatives live on different sides of the border. Community events have stalled even as cities away from U.S. borders have inched toward normalcy.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where hockey and ice skating are ingrained, the Soo Eagles haven't had a home game against a Canadian opponent in 20 months. The players, 17 to 20 years old, have been traveling to Canada since border restrictions were lifted there two months ago. Now the U.S. team can host.

"I almost fell over when I read it," said Ron Lavin, co-owner of the Eagles. "It's been a long frustrating journey for people on a lot of fronts far more serious than hockey, but we're just really pleased. It's great for the city."

Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents have been allowed into Canada since August, provided they have waited at least two weeks since getting their second vaccine dose and can show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Mexico has not enforced COVID-19 entry procedures for land travelers.

The latest move follows last month's announcement that the U.S. will end country-based travel bans for air travel and instead require vaccination for foreign nationals seeking to enter by plane.

The new rules only apply to legal entry. Those who enter illegally will still be subject to expulsion under a public health authority that allows for the swift removal of migrants before they can seek asylum.

Travelers entering the U.S. by vehicle, rail and ferry will be asked about their vaccination status as part of the standard U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection. At officers' discretion, travelers will have their proof of vaccination verified in a secondary screening process.

Unlike air travel, for which proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required before boarding a flight to enter the U.S., no testing will be required to enter the U.S. by land or sea, provided the travelers meet the vaccination requirement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That means that the AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in Canada, will be accepted.

Officials said the CDC was still working to formalize procedures for admitting those who received doses of two different vaccines, as was fairly common in Canada.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was "pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner" and lauded the economic benefits of it.

Mexico, Canada and elected officials from U.S. border regions have pressured the Biden administration for months to ease restrictions.

"This is a win for families who've been separated and businesses and tourism industries whose operations have been blocked since the start of the pandemic," said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, echoing reactions of other federal, state and local officials.

Cross-border traffic has plummeted since the pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

The number of vehicle passengers entering the U.S. in Niagara Falls, New York — the busiest land crossing on the Canadian border — fell 83% to 1.7 million in 2020 and has remained low this year.

"Losing those customers over the last 18 months has been one of the primary reasons our hotels, restaurants and attractions have been suffering," said Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive of Visit Buffalo Niagara, the area's tourism agency.

The move toward restoring regular travel comes as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have dropped to about 85,000 per day, the lowest level since July, following a spike from the more transmissible delta variant of the virus. Per capita case rates in Canada and Mexico have been been markedly lower in the two countries than the U.S. for the duration of the pandemic, which amplified frustrations about the U.S. restrictions on travel.


Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto; Juan A. Lozano in Houston; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont; Ed White in Detroit and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, contributed.

Arizona jury convicts airman in death of Mennonite woman—Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

A jury in Arizona has convicted a U.S. Air Force airman in the disappearance and death of a Mennonite woman who had been living in New Mexico.

The jury reached its verdict Wednesday after deliberating for about five hours total. Jurors heard closing arguments in the case Friday.

Mark Gooch, 22, faces life in prison on the first-degree murder conviction. He also was found guilty of kidnapping Sasha Krause in January 2020 from the Farmington Mennonite Church where she was gathering material for Sunday school.

Krause's body was found more than a month later, hundreds of miles away in a forest clearing outside Flagstaff, Arizona.

Half of the courtroom was filled at times with Krause's parents and others who shared in the Mennonite faith, including the general manager of the publishing ministry where she worked in Farmington. Paul Kaufman said Wednesday his heart goes out to both Krause's and Gooch's parents, and the community doesn't want to be vindictive of Gooch.

"We desire his complete repentance, that he would turn from darkness to light," Kaufman said.

Coconino County Attorney William Ring did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Jurors heard 10 days of testimony from those who knew Krause, investigated her disappearance and tried to track down who was responsible. They heard from ballistics experts who disagreed on whether the bullet taken from her skull was fired from a .22-rifle caliber that Gooch owned. They heard from Gooch's father, Jim, but they did not hear from the defendant himself.

Gooch had no expression during the trial or when the verdict was announced. As he left the courtroom, he looked toward two family members who sat behind him in court. They declined to comment.

Sentencing has been set for Nov. 24. Coconino County Superior Court Judge Cathleen Brown Nichols separately convicted Gooch of a misdemeanor charge of theft, related to clothing that was missing from Krause's body.

Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, tried to raise reasonable doubt among the jury by pointing to a lack of forensic evidence and testimony about another car being seen in the Mennonite community the day Krause went missing. He said Gooch was peaceful and volunteered information to a sheriff's detective who interviewed him at Luke Air Force Base in metropolitan Phoenix where he was stationed.

"The circumstantial evidence from my perspective was substantial, and the jury perhaps concluded that the circumstantial evidence was enough to outweigh those problems," he said Wednesday.

Nothing indicated Krause and Gooch knew each other. Both grew up in large families with parents who joined the Mennonite church when they were young. Krause continued on that path but Gooch did not, instead rejecting the faith and leaving Wisconsin for the military.

Gooch's father, Jim Gooch, testified during the trial that his son did not have a converted heart, words that prosecutor Ammon Barker drew on during his closing arguments.

"What the scripture says is you turn from darkness to light," Jim Gooch said. "What it says is you've decided to follow the lord with your entire heart and with the tenets of the scripture would call for."

Krause, 27, taught school for six years at Grandview Gospel Fellowship in Grandview, Texas, before moving to Farmington. She worked in the publishing ministry there for less than two years before she died. She was known for her poetry, her knowledge of Spanish and French, her skills in card games and ping pong, and for her quiet work ethic.

No one saw her being taken from the community or killed. When a camper found her body near Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, her wrists were bound with duct tape, she had suffered blunt force trauma and had a gunshot wound in the back of her head.

Authorities used cellphone, financial records and surveillance video to tie Gooch to the crimes, they said. Barker said Gooch was driven by a resentment for Mennonites, partly displayed through text messages exchanges with his brothers.

Authorities found inconsistencies in Gooch's story when he talked to a sheriff's detective shortly before he was arrested in April 2020. They said Gooch's cellphone was the only device that communicated with the same cell sites as Krause's phone before her signal dropped off west of Farmington.

The San Juan County Sheriff's Office in New Mexico, which investigated her disappearance, said it will pursue a separate kidnapping charge against Gooch.

"We are delighted to hear that Sasha got some justice today," Sheriff Shane Ferrari said in a statement.

Boy reportedly taken to Mexico after mother's killing 'safe'— Associated Press

ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) — A young Roswell boy said by authorities to have been taken to Mexico by his father after the killing of the boy's mother has been found safe, New Mexico state police said.

The state police's brief emailed announcement Tuesday said Osiel Ernesto Rico "has been located safe" and that an Amber Alert issued for him in 2020 has been canceled. The announcement said requests for additional information should be directed to the FBI.

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher told the Roswell Daily Record that the agency was not commenting on the case "at this time."

The boy's father, Jorge Rico-Ruvira, is charged in state District Court with first-degree murder in the January 2020 strangulation of Isela Mauricio-Sanchez, 27. He's also charged with child abuse.

According to online court records, an arrest warrant for Rico-Ruvira remained active as of July 14, the latest item in the case's docket.

Rico-Ruvira is charged in U.S. District Court with flight to avoid prosecution. The case docket contains no entries since mid-2020.

be housed in another agency.


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.


This story has been corrected to show that the person Blalock hired and fired was not Vigil; that the Director of the Office of Children's Rights position has been filled; and that the legislative session will begin in January, not February.

New Mexico looks to expand job safety workforce - Associated Press

New Mexico is looking to hire more than 30 new state workers who will be part of its Occupational Safety and Health program. 

The New Mexico Environment Department announced Tuesday that it will be hosting hiring events next week in Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Albuquerque as the agency looks to expand its OSHA ranks. The new positions include worksite inspectors, compliance assistance specialists, operations staff and COVID-19 response staff.

The department noted that the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces is the newest hazard affecting employee health, so about half of the new hires will be dedicated to ensuring employers adhere to state and federal public health rules, policies and practices. 

Officials said those employees will work alongside the state Department of Health to help keep businesses open and employees safe when COVID-19 is detected in the workplace. 

New Mexico pledges support for tribal adoptions in state law - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

In her first prepared speech Tuesday the new leader of New Mexico's child protection department pledges to restore the agency's credibility following a series of scandals under her predecessor.

New Mexico Children Youth and Family Department Secretary Barbara J. Vigil also promised to enshrine federal law prioritizing tribal members in adoptions of Native American children into the practices of her department and state law. 

In an online speech to some 300 Native American child welfare advocates, the former New Mexico Supreme Court justice said she would increase transparency and accountability at the agency, which handles child abuse and neglect cases, as well as foster care and adoptions.

"We must restore the credibility of CYFD," Vigil told the audience of Native American leaders and child welfare caseworkers. 

Vigil replaced former secretary Brian Blalock in August.

Blalock oversaw the department's switch to an encrypted app that drew controversy over institutionalized use of a feature to erase messages, including those that may have been subject to record retention laws. State legislators recently accused him of misleading them earlier this year with data that downplayed the severity of child mistreatment.

Under Blalock, the department resisted calls for more independent oversight, pointing to an advisory council and an advocacy office.

"I will support the creation of an ombudsperson office," Vigil said, adding that legislation is under discussion.

Under Blalock, the department suggested that an independent investigator wasn't necessary, because of an existing advisory committee.

Vigil also said she would "continue to support the creation of the Office of Children's Rights," a section of the department established under Blalock to advocate for vulnerable children.

He fired her a few months later, and she sued and claimed whistleblower status. The position is currently vacant.

Vigil said she supports state lawmaker's attempts to enshrine the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law. The act passed in 1978 gives preference to Native American families in state foster care and adoption proceedings involving Native children.

Supporters and opponents of the law have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review it after a lower court issued a sharply divided ruling that invalidated some of the law's placement preferences. 

Tribes and the U.S. Department of the Interior say the law protects Native American families and cultures. Opponents, including a white couple that adopted a Native child, contend the law is racist. 

Six states have copied federal requirements into their own laws, such as a duty to notify federally recognized tribes of involuntary custody proceedings. New Mexico is exploring taking the federal rules even further, for example, by making it easier for a tribal nation to facilitate an adoption under its own laws, as is the law in California.

"We do have a commitment from the governor to take a look at it," said bill sponsor Rep. Georgene Louis, an Albuquerque Democrat, who said she sent a draft bill to Native American leaders last week. "All if not most tribes are on board."

Every other year, the February Legislative session is shorter, and gives the governor more discretion to determine which legislation gets a vote.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not ruled or endorsed either of the proposed bills that could affect the child protection agency.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett said tribal adoption laws are being considered "in conversation with stakeholder groups" including tribes.

"Although we believe it will be important to find ways to strengthen transparency and accountability at CYFD, and we have had conversations with legislative leaders about that, we are not yet committed to one path," Sackett said, adding that the child advocacy position could be housed in another agency.

Navajo Nation: No COVID-19 deaths for 9th time in 13 days - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 48 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the ninth time in the past 13 days.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 34,506 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll is at 1,456.

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

"We are seeing a flattening of the curve in terms of new cases of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation, but we have to stay focused and remain diligent," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Tuesday.

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