MON: Albuquerque shatters homicide record by 46%, + More
Albuquerque, New Mexico, shatters homicide record by 46% - Associated Press
New Mexico's largest city recorded 117 killings in 2021, shattering its previous homicide record by 46%.
The previous homicide record of 80 was set just three years earlier, during Mayor Tim Keller's first term. He acknowledged over the summer that the city would surely surpass 100 killings in 2021, and he remains under pressure to address the problem as he starts his second term.
Family members of many victims have been frustrated. Some worked to bring attention to gun violence through a national memorial effort in the fall. In December, the city named 14 people to its gun violence prevention and intervention task force to come up with recommendations over the next 12 months.
City officials also have pointed to a lack of consequences for repeat offenders as one of the reasons Albuquerque continues to struggle with crime. Police Chief Harold Medina has repeatedly said changes in the judicial system are needed.
Keller has acknowledged the challenges for New Mexico's largest city.
"There is no doubt that we face a tough road ahead. That's why we are pushing forward so fiercely. It's not just in spite of our challenges, but because of them," he said after being sworn in Saturday.
All but three of the 2021 killings are being investigated by Albuquerque police, the Albuquerque Journal reported. The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office is investigating another 11 homicides in the areas surrounding the city.
Over the past 35 years, Albuquerque's yearly homicide count has averaged about 45 homicides per year, KRQE reported. The average has risen in the past few years, according to federal crime data. Albuquerque homicides now account for more than half of New Mexico's entire yearly homicide count.
In the first three quarters of 2021, Albuquerque had 111 violent crimes per 10,000 people, according to FBI data. That put Albuquerque in the top 10 most violent cities with populations over 100,000 people.
Other U.S. cities also saw increases in homicide numbers over the past year. That includes Chicago, which marked one of its most violent years on record. Statistics released by Chicago police over the weekend listed 797 homicides — 25 more than were recorded 2020 and the most since 1996.
Daryl Noon sworn in as Navajo Police Department's new chief - Associated Press
Daryl Noon was sworn in Monday as the Navajo Police Department's new chief.
Window Rock District Court Judge Malcolm P. Begay administered the oath to Noon during a ceremony at the offices of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer.
Noon succeeds Phillip Francisco, who resigned on Nov. 30 and now is the chief of the Bloomfield Police Department in New Mexico.
Noon was born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and previously resided in Shiprock, New Mexico.
He has served as the Navajo Nation's deputy police chief since January 2019.
Noon previously worked with the Farmington Police Department in several capacities, including deputy chief of police, for more than 23 years.
2nd Asian elephant dies from virus at an Albuquerque zoo - Associated Press
A second Asian elephant has died at an Albuquerque zoo due to a virus infection, authorities said Monday.
Officials at ABQ BioPark announced 8-year-old Jazmine died Sunday from the effects of the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.
BioPark officials said the virus was first detected in her bloodwork on Dec. 28 and Jazmine had round-the-clock treatment from medical and elephant experts from across the country.
They said the virus also killed her 3-year-old brother, Thorn, on Christmas Day.
BioPark officials elephants are most susceptible to the virus from 18 months to 8 years old.
They also said EEHV is the leading cause of death for Asian elephant calves and can impact elephants in all habitats.
A 50-year-old Asian elephant named Sheena died at the Phoenix Zoo in late November of natural causes, but had been carefully managed for the past few years for chronic osteoarthritis and gastrointestinal issues.
She had been at the Phoenix Zoo since 2000.
New Mexico demands feds investigate federal nuclear programs - By Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus
Stronger oversight of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant could be coming as the federal government was called on by New Mexico officials and members of Congress to address alleged problems with the U.S. Department of Energy's environmental cleanup operations.
New Mexico Environment James Kenney expressed concerns for operations at WIPP in a letter to the federal Government Accountability Office, calling for the office to increase its oversight of the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, the Current-Argus reported.
Low-level transuranic (TRU) waste from around the country is disposed of at WIPP via burial in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.
It is owned and operated by Energy Department and its Office of Environmental Management and is permitted and regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department.
In his Dec. 22 letter, Kenney said the Government Accountability Office should review nuclear programs in New Mexico, including the prioritization of nuclear waste shipments to WIPP from facilities outside New Mexico.
Kenny said first priority should be given to waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, where the DOE intends to increase production of the plutonium pits used in nuclear weapons. He noted that DOE has entered into legally binding settlement agreements with some states to prioritize waste shipments at the expense of shipments from New Mexico and other states.
"This is problematic for both the cleanup of legacy waste at LANL and new waste from pit production at LANL," he wrote.
Before DOE entered into such agreements, as it had with Idaho for cleanup at Idaho National Laboratory in 1995, Kenney said the agency should have engaged with New Mexico stakeholders who would bear the impacts of moving out-of-state nuclear waste into their state.
The Idaho agreement led to shipments of nuclear waste left over from the Cold War heading to WIPP. The DOE's Carlsbad Field Office approved 2,237 drums of TRU waste for shipment earlier this year – accounting for about six shipments a week through February 2022.
In 2021, WIPP accepted an average of about five shipments per week, records show, and officials reported 30 shipments were sent to WIPP from Los Alamos.
"The practice of DOE EM solely managing waste shipments to WIPP from around the U.S. without first discussing with New Mexico stakeholders – including NMED as its regulator – now merits immediate congressional oversight," Kenney wrote.
In response, DOE officials in an emailed statement said WIPP prioritizes shipments based on their availability and certification under the federal Land Withdrawal Act.
"DOE will continue its transparency efforts while strongly encouraging community engagement at all public meetings, including those hosted by DOE's Carlsbad Field Office," the statement read.
Kenney also voiced reservations about DOE officials allegedly seeking to expand the kinds of waste accepted at WIPP.
A recent DOE proposal sought to redefine high-level waste to consider the radiation level as opposed to the current method that considers where the waste was generated, potentially leading to more waste coming to WIPP, Kenney said.
Another concern, Kenney wrote, was a DOE-proposed "dilute and dispose" program that would see high-level plutonium processed to lower its radioactivity so it could meet WIPP requirements.
The proposal would see up to 34 tons of plutonium from the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Pantex Plant in northern Texas processed and prepared for disposal at WIPP.
The Pantex waste, under the DOE's preferred method published in the Federal Register, would be sent to Los Alamos for preparation and then to Savanna River for dilution before heading back to WIPP for disposal.
Plutonium waste at Savannah River would be down-blended there before shipment to WIPP.
Kenney's letter was in response to a Dec. 2 letter from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce calling for the GAO to hold a program-wide review of "extreme management challenges" at DOE's Office of Environmental Management.
The office was added to the GAO's High Risk List in 2017 and remained on the list at the time of the letter.
Committee members in their letter outlined concerns with program management, safety costs, soil and groundwater remediation and stakeholder engagement.
"In an effort to assist us with our oversight of EM's cleanup efforts, the committee would like GAO to examine the major management challenges at EM that affect its ability to reduce its environmental liabilities and make progress on longstanding high risk areas," the congressional letter read.
Teen killed at Ribera New Year's party, 2nd teen arrested - Associated Press
New Mexico State police say they've arrested an 18-year-old man after another teen was shot to death at a New Year's Eve party in the small San Miguel County community of Ribera.
State police said in a statement Sunday that they were called to a Ribera home on Friday night and found 17-year-old Joshua Vigil dead of an apparent gunshot wound.
Police investigating the shooting learned that the 18-year-old owner of the home had been having a party. Some sort of fight broke out between the homeowner and Vigil that ended in the fatal shooting.
The 18-year-old was arrested on a 2nd degree murder charge and a weapons charge.
Ribera is about 35 miles southeast of Santa Fe.
US close to ending buried nuke waste cleanup at Idaho site - By Keith Ridler Associated Press
A lengthy project to dig up and remove radioactive and hazardous waste buried for decades in unlined pits at a nuclear facility that sits atop a giant aquifer in eastern Idaho is nearly finished, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. Department of Energy said last week that it removed the final amount of specifically-targeted buried waste from a 97-acre landfill at its 890-square-mile site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.
The targeted radioactive waste included plutonium-contaminated filters, graphite molds, sludges containing solvents and oxidized uranium generated during nuclear weapons production work at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. Some radioactive and hazardous remains in the Idaho landfill that will receive an earthen cover.
The waste from Rocky Flats was packaged in storage drums and boxes before being sent from 1954 to 1970 to the high-desert, sagebrush steppe of eastern Idaho where it was buried in unlined pits and trenches. The area lies about 50 miles west of the city of Idaho Falls.
The cleanup project, started in 2005, is named the Accelerated Retrieval Project and is one of about a dozen cleanup efforts of nuclear waste finished or ongoing at the Energy Department site.
The project involving the landfill is part of a 2008 agreement between the Energy Department and state officials that required the department to dig up and remove specific types and amounts of radioactive and hazardous material.
The agency said it removed about 13,500 cubic yards of material — which is the equivalent of nearly 50,000 storage drums each containing 55 gallons.
Most of the waste is being sent to the U.S. government's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for permanent disposal. Some waste will be sent to other off-site repositories that could be commercial or Energy Department sites.
The Energy Department said it is 18 months ahead of schedule in its cleanup of the landfill.
"The buried waste was the primary concern of our stakeholders since the beginning of the cleanup program," Connie Flohr, manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project for the Energy Department's Office of Environmental Management, said in a statement. "Completing exhumation early will allow us to get an earlier start on construction of the final cover."
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson represents the area that benefits from millions of federal dollars brought into the state by research work done at the Idaho National Laboratory.
"What exciting news for DOE and the Idaho Cleanup project," he said on Twitter about the landfill work. "A successful clean-up means protection for the region and the Snake River Plain Aquifer."
The Lake Erie-sized Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer supplies farms and cities in the region. A 2020 U.S. Geological Survey report said radioactive and chemical contamination in the aquifer had decreased or remained constant in recent years. It attributed the decreases to radioactive decay, changes in waste-disposal methods, cleanup efforts and dilution from water coming into the aquifer.
The report said contamination levels at all but a handful of nearly 180 wells are below acceptable standards for drinking water as set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The nuclear site started operating in the late 1940s under the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner to the Energy Department, and contamination of the aquifer began in 1952, according to the U.S. Geological Survey report.
Contamination reached the aquifer through injection wells, unlined percolation ponds, pits into which radioactive material from other states was dumped, and accidental spills mainly during the Cold War era before regulations to protect the environment were put in place.
Tritium accounted for most of the radioactivity in water discharged into the aquifer, the U.S. Geological Survey report said, but also included strontium-90, cesium-137, iodine-129, plutonium isotopes, uranium isotopes, neptunium-237, americium-241, and technetium-99.
In 1989, the area became a Superfund site when it was was added to the National Priorities List for Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Sites.
The Energy Department shipped nuclear waste to Idaho until a series of lawsuits between the state and the federal government in the 1990s led to a 1995 settlement agreement.
The agreement was seen as a way to prevent the state from becoming a high-level nuclear waste repository. It also required cleanup and removal of existing nuclear waste, which continues.
Schools adapt for return from break as COVID-19 cases surge —Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press
Mask requirements are returning in some school districts that had dropped them. Some are planning to vastly ramp up virus testing among students and staff. And a small number of school systems are switching to remote learning — for just a short while, educators hope.
With coronavirus infections soaring, the return from schools' winter break will be different than planned for some as administrators again tweak protocols and make real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. All are signaling a need to stay flexible.
"Change has been the only constant in this fight," Newark Schools Superintendent Roger León wrote in a notice to parents before break. He announced Thursday that students will learn remotely for at least the first two weeks of the new year. The virus, León said, continues "to be a brutal, relentless and ruthless virus that rears its ugly head at inopportune times."
Long after the widespread closures in the pandemic's early days, school and elected leaders say they are using the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the latest surge without long-term shutdowns, which had woeful effects on learning and students' well-being.
Still, pressure from parents and teachers unions has added to the urgency surrounding safety measures as the omicron-fueled surge sends up caseloads and puts children in the hospital in close to record numbers.
"They say kids do well (if infected), but who's to say my kid is not going to be that one," said Rebecca Caldwell, who is considering petitioning her Charleston, Illinois, district for a remote option that would let her keep her four sons, ages 17, 10, 7 and 5, home through the winter.
The first half of the school year brought Caldwell's family three scares from exposures. One, from a family member, kept the whole family in quarantine for 10 days. Her 17-year-old and 10-year-old saw classmates infected, and each underwent a nerve-wracking series of COVID-19 tests as part of a more recent "test-to-stay" policy.
"It's really scary because you worry about the domino effect, too," said Caldwell, whose own health issues led her to leave her restaurant job more than a year ago to lessen her risk.
In the nation's largest school system, New York City, 2 million at-home test kits provided by the state will be used to increase testing following the break, officials announced this week. Students whose classmates test positive can keep coming to school as long as their at-home tests are negative and they don't have symptoms.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City educators, questioned whether the new testing initiatives will be available in every school by the time schools reopen Monday.
"We are moving closer to a safe reopening of school next week. But we are not there yet," he said.
In Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district, officials announced the purchase of 100,000 laptops over the holidays in case they are needed for remote learning in January, though district leaders said they hope to avoid a system-wide closure. The Chicago Teachers Union has proposed pausing in-person learning unless new safety measures are introduced, including negative COVID tests for returning students.
Los Angeles health officials last week announced tightened testing and masking rules for all employees and students when LA County public and private schools return to campuses on Monday. Concerned by a spike of the Omicron variant, the county health department mandated that teachers must wear medical grade masks in class and students and staff must wear masks outdoors in crowded spaces. Schools will have two weeks to comply.
To help keep as many students in school as possible, the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona endorsed test-to-stay in December as an alternative to the previously recommended 10-day quarantines. Hundreds of schools have adopted test-to-stay policies for students who have had contact with an infected classmate.
"The goal remains to keep all schools open for in-person learning five days a week throughout the 2021-22 school year and beyond," Cardona said in a message to schools marking the halfway point of the academic year. He said 99% of schools were open in-person in December, compared with 46% last January.
Out of more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, relatively few have announced plans to start remotely after winter break.
Like Newark, those districts generally plan to resume in-person instruction within a couple weeks. They include Cleveland, Ohio; Prince George's County, Maryland; Mount Vernon, New York; Taos, New Mexico; Chester County, South Carolina; and several New Jersey school systems.
Citing the city's high infection rate, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on Friday extended the winter break for nearly 50,000 students through at least Jan. 5 and urged them to get tested through the district. Tests are required for employees.
Ronald Taylor, superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District in New Jersey, said a spike in cases and subsequent quarantining heading into the break had disrupted operations by forcing consolidation of classes where there weren't enough staff. He said the district would be remote the first week back.
"Like many other school districts, we have seen a consistent trend, after each of our school breaks, both Thanksgiving and our fall break in early November, there has been a sharp increase in our student/staff population of COVID cases," he said.
Masks also will make a return in some districts after break, including Hopkinton High School, the first Massachusetts public school to lift the mandate, in October. It was reinstated just before break.
In Florida's Miami-Dade County, where one in four people was testing positive for the virus, the school system announced Thursday that all employees, volunteers and visitors will be required to wear face coverings at schools and facilities, and students will be strongly encouraged to wear them. A state law prevents school districts from imposing mask mandates for students.
Some school systems are moving toward requiring vaccinations for students, but not anytime soon. In the Los Angeles school district, which was among the first to announce mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for students, a Jan. 10 deadline for students 12 and older was postponed until fall of 2022. Officials said the earlier date would have barred about 27,000 unvaccinated students from campuses.
The District of Columbia on Dec. 22 said all students, whether in public, private or charter schools, must be fully vaccinated by March 1.
Much about the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early 2022.
In Ohio, where hospitalizations for COVID-19 hit a record high this week, the Ohio Hospital Association is asking schools statewide to consider mandatory mask wearing as cases continue to spike.
The patchwork of responses also includes Woodbury, New Jersey's plans to bring students in for half days for the first week, sending them home with lunch so they don't have to remove masks in the building to eat.
Crews rescue 21 people on stuck tram cars in New Mexico — Paul Davenport, Associated Press
New Mexico search and rescue crews used ropes and helicopters Saturday to rescue 21 people who were stranded overnight in two tram cars after an iced-over cable caused the cars to get stuck high up in the Sandia Mountains overlooking Albuquerque.
Lt. Robert Arguelles a Bernalillo County Fire Department spokesperson, said early Saturday afternoon that crews first rescued 20 people stranded in one car and several hours later rescued a 21st person stranded by themselves in a second car.
All the people on the two cars were employees of the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway or a mountaintop restaurant, and the 20 in one car were being ferried down to the base of the mountains at the end of their workdays, Arguelles said.
The other employee had been heading up the mountain to provide overnight security when the tram system shut down Friday night due to icing, Arguelles said.
There were no reported injuries among those stranded, Arguelles said. "More just pretty frustrated."
To rescue the 20 people in the one car, operators were able to move it to a nearby support tower more than halfway up the mountain, and search and rescue personnel early Saturday morning hiked to the area and climbed the tower to deliver blankets and other supplies to those inside the heated car, Arguelles said.
Search and rescue personnel over several hours used ropes and other equipment to lower the stranded employees about 85 feet (26 meters) to the ground before escorting them to a nearby landing zone in the steep and rocky terrain where the tower was located, Arguelles said.
The 20 people were then ferried by helicopter several at a time to the base of the mountains, he said.
Arguelles said the second car with the one employee aboard was higher up the mountain and at location where the car was too high above the ground to lower people by ropes.
But the tram system was able to inch the second car down the cable to the rescue site at the support tower, and rescuers then used ropes to lower the 21st person as was done with the others, Arguelles said.
Brian Coon, a tramway system manager, said there was an unusually fast accumulation of ice on one of the cables that made it droop below the tram, making it dangerous to keep going, KOB-TV reported.
This story was updated to correct the spelling of the Bernalillo County Fire Department spokesperson Lt. Robert Arguelles' name.
Higher health insurance surtax among New Mexico's new laws — Morgan Lee, Associated Press
With the arrival of the new year, new laws are taking effect in New Mexico that aim to bolster access to health insurance and eliminate many court fines against juveniles that are viewed as counterproductive.
One bill approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state's Democrat-led Legislature adds a 2.75% surtax on health insurance premiums — the upfront payments made on behalf of an individual or family to keep insurance active — starting Jan. 1, 2022. The current surtax is set at 1% of premiums.
The tax increase will be used in large part to underwrite health-exchange insurance offerings for low- and moderate-income individuals, along with employees at small businesses, starting in 2023.
Insurance Superintendent Russell Toal says the surtax will provide a crucial subsidy when Medicaid coverage under special federal pandemic provisions expires for an estimated 85,000 residents. Many patients who leave Medicaid are likely to seek out policies on the state insurance exchange.
Separately, New Mexico is eliminating many fines and fees in the juvenile justice system that are viewed as potentially harmful and expensive to administer.
Under the legislation from Democratic state Reps. Roger Montoya of Velarde and Gail Chasey of Albuquerque, the state will no longer collect a $10 application fee for assignment of a public defender in delinquency cases. The new law also eliminates fines for possession of marijuana by a minor and limits community service requirements to 48 hours for minors caught with pot.
New Mexico in late June legalized nonmedical cannabis for adults 21 and older and authorized retail sales of recreational marijuana by April 1, 2022.
Regarding the state's new surtax, several legislators — Republican and Democratic — have worried a tax increase on policies would be passed on to businesses and consumers by health insurance companies. Insurance officials say nearly 90% of the tax increase will fall on managed care organizations that provide Medicaid insurance.
State officials also hope to use a portion of the new tax proceeds to attract more federal matching funds for local Medicaid providers.
Toal says it is still up to the Legislature in 2022 to approve spending that reduces costs at the state health insurance exchange and helps small businesses. Lawmakers convene Jan. 18 for a 30-day session that focuses primarily on budgetary matters.
Albuquerque City Council undergoes most turnover in 20 years — Jessica Dyer, Albuquerque Journal
One longtime Albuquerque city councilor is calling it the "big reset."
Another says it's a reason for optimism.
Four new Albuquerque city councilors take their oaths Saturday, marking the single largest council transition in the last 20 years.
In fact, the recent election turned over more seats than the past three local elections combined. Not since 2001 has the council seen so many new members join at once, meaning not even the council's longest-serving current member — Isaac Benton, who has been in office for 16 years — has been part of anything like it.
"It will be more different than any other transition than I can remember, and everyone has to get used to each other," Benton told the Albuquerque Journal. "It's a big reset."
Both current city councilors and those newly elected say they are hopeful about the fresh start despite what could be some deep ideological chasms within the nine-member legislative body.
Though city elections are officially nonpartisan, the new council will have five Democrats and four Republicans. For the last few years, Democrats have had a 6-3 majority.
The new council takes seat after a record-breaking year for Albuquerque homicides and with the city facing profound challenges related to homelessness.
Tammy Fiebelkorn, a Democrat who recently won election to represent the city's middle Heights, said she believes the councilors all understand the issues and are capable of finding common-ground solutions.
"I'm really heartened by the conversations I've had with (other councilors) on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from me politically," she said. "We're finding overlap and areas of interest we can agree on."
Fiebelkorn succeeds Diane Gibson, a two-term Democrat who chose not to seek reelection. Renee Grout, a Republican, won the race to replace Don Harris, a fellow Republican who left on his own terms after 16 years representing the city's Southeastern-most district.
Republican Dan Lewis and conservative Democrat Louie Sanchez enter office having ousted Democratic incumbents Cynthia Borrego and Lan Sena during the Nov. 2 election.
Benton said he would not characterize the incoming council as more conservative, saying he prefers to describe it as "independent-thinking."
"That might be a good thing right now," said Benton, who represents the downtown area.
In recent years, the council has rarely found itself divided along strict party lines, but other fractures exist, and 5-4 votes have become commonplace.
Councilor Trudy Jones, a Republican who has been in office for 14 years, said the last year has been as contentious as anything she's experienced during her council tenure. She said she looks forward to the new perspectives the turnover will bring.
"I think it will be a council that is more thoughtful about their legislation rather than just following their leaders," she said.
Mayor Tim Keller — a Democrat who was reelected in November – often easily moved proposals through council during his first term. That could change as new faces supplant some of his biggest allies on the legislative body.
"There's going to be more checks and balances," Grout said of the incoming council. "(The mayor's) unchecked power is going to be different."
Keller says he has a history of working with people across the aisle, citing his experience in other elected offices before becoming mayor.
"This council will be no different just because the rhetoric and partisan landscape may have changed," he said in a statement. "What it comes down to is this: we all got elected this cycle to work on our city's challenges, not to point fingers or play the accountability blame game; we need proactive ideas and solutions to our problems. As long as the new councilors follow that mandate from voters, we are going to have (a) great relationship."
With the exception of Lewis, who served two terms as a councilor before stepping down in 2017 in an unsuccessful bid for mayor, none of the incoming councilors has served in elected office before.
Jones said that has advantages.
"It's always beneficial to a council to have some new blood and new vision — people seeing the good and the bad of how things are running and perhaps some great new ideas," she said. "I'm very optimistic about it."
Grout said she would use her early days in office to research, ask questions and listen.
Fiebelkorn said she would spend her first month working to secure capital outlay funds from the Legislature, which convenes Jan. 18, and getting to know her peers better.
She said she is taking office with "full confidence" in city leaders' ability to come together to make Albuquerque a better place.
But, she added, "talk to me again in three months and see if I'm still saying that."