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TUES: New Mexico tribes still waiting on overdue education plan, + More

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New Mexico tribes still waiting on overdue education plan - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico's plan to address the needs of underserved Indigenous students hasn't been shared with tribal leaders or the public despite promises to do so last year.

A draft of the plan was ready as early as October and Native American leaders were expecting to be invited to comment on the document ahead of its scheduled public release on Dec 1. That never happened, and advocates say the draft still is awaiting approval by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

"When it comes to promises, and it is a serious thing, it should have been followed up already," said Mark Mitchell, recently named chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 Native American tribes in New Mexico and Texas.

The New Mexico Public Education Department had hired former Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia to write the plan. She said she last worked on the project on Oct. 4.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Tuesday the administration will release the plan "in the near future."

New Mexico Republican to make run for congressional seat - Associated Press

Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson is making another run for New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District.

The northern New Mexico district has been a Democratic stronghold since it was created in the 1980s, but Martinez Johnson said during her announcement Monday that she was optimistic about the new boundaries that resulted from the redistricting process.

Consultants to the Legislature have said the new congressional map gives Democrats an advantage in all three districts to varying degrees, based on past voting behavior.

Martinez Johnson pointed to parts of Chaves, Eddy, Lea counties that will now be part of the district and said she would reach out to boost voting in McKinley County and on the Navajo and Jicarilla Apache nations.

The seat is currently held by Democrat Teresa Leger Fernández, who is serving her first term in Congress.

An environmental engineer, Martinez Johnson said she believes the mood of the electorate is changing and that inflation will be among the issues politicians will have to face.

Martinez Johnson, who was born in Portales and raised in Roswell, ran unsuccessfully for the congressional seat in 2020. She also lost her recent bid for Santa Fe mayor.

The 3rd Congressional District has had only one Republican — Bill Redmond — hold the seat briefly. Redmond won in a special election to fill a vacancy but lost to Democrat Tom Udall when he ran for a full term the next year.

New Mexico utility files appeal over rejected merger — Associated Press

The state's largest electric utility is appealing a recent decision by regulators to reject a proposed merger with a U.S. subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola.

PNM Resources announced that it filed its notice of appeal with the New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday.

Company officials reiterated in a statement that they believe the multibillion-dollar merger with Avangrid would be in the best interest of the state. Being backed by Avangrid and Iberdrola would provide the New Mexico utility greater purchasing power and help move it closer to its carbon-free goals.

"If we did not believe this was right for New Mexico, we wouldn't keep pursuing it," PNM Chair, President and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn said in a statement. "We are merging with a company that is making a commitment to New Mexico beyond just a financial transaction."

The Public Regulation Commission in its recent decision to turn down the acquisition focused on concerns about Avangrid's reliability and customer service track record in other states where it operates.

The elected commissioners also pointed to the company initially withholding information during the lengthy proceeding, a move that resulted in a $10,000 penalty.

Under the proposal, Connecticut-based Avangrid would have acquired PNM Resources and its two utilities — Public Service Co. of New Mexico and Texas New Mexico Power. The all-cash transaction was valued at more than $4.3 billion and would have opened the door for Iberdrola and Avangrid in a state where more wind and solar power could be generated and exported to larger markets.

As part of an advertising blitz, the utilities had touted more than $300 million in benefits that included rate relief for PNM customers for three years, economic development investments, the creation of 150 jobs and other concessions reached through negotiations with parties in the case.

The companies will have 30 days to outline their arguments, but it's unclear how soon the court could act on the appeal.

1st case of the omicron variant is detected on Navajo Nation — Associated Press

The Navajo Nation reported 10 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and no deaths Monday, but tribal health officials say the first case of the omicron variant has been detected on the vast reservation.

Based on cases from Dec. 17-30, the Navajo Department of Health has issued an advisory for 42 communities due to uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.

The latest numbers pushed the number of cases on the Navajo Nation at 41,657 since the pandemic began.

The death roll remains at 1,590.

"The first known case of the omicron variant has been found here on the Navajo Nation," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Monday. "This is not a time to panic, but we must step up our efforts to take the necessary precautions to limit the spread of this new variant in our communities.

"Health officials recommend wearing two masks in public due to how quickly the omicron variant has spread in other parts of the world. In many parts of the country, more and more health care workers are having to isolate due to the spread of the omicron variant," Nez added.

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, shatters homicide record by 46% — Susan Montoya Bryan, 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 in 2020 and the most since 1996.

US close to ending buried nuke waste cleanup at Idaho site — Keith Riddler, 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 (39-hectare) landfill at its 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) 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 (80 kilometers) 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 (10,300 cubic meters) of material — which is the equivalent of nearly 50,000 storage drums each containing 55 gallons (208 liters).

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.

Medina, the Albuquerque police chief, said he believes the pandemic also is to blame for nationwide spikes in homicides, suicides, drug overdoses and traffic crashes. He said public behavior has changed dramatically in the last two years.

Still, Medina is hopeful. He said in an email to The Associated Press that Albuquerque is in a better position now than most cities because of continued investments in public safety and new violence intervention programs.

"We tripled the number of homicide detectives, and we invested $80 million in crime-fighting technology," he said. "The Metro Crime Initiative brings together all parts of the criminal justice system so we can end the revolving door for repeat offenders and finally strike a balance when it comes to keeping people safe."

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 — Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — 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.

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 (56 kilometers) southeast of Santa Fe.

"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.