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KUNM News Update

TUES: Watchdog has concerns with projects at US nuclear repository, + More

WIPP.jpg
U.S. Department of Energy
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Watchdog has concerns with projects at US nuclear repository - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

There's no way of knowing if cost increases and missed construction deadlines will continue at the only U.S. underground nuclear waste repository, according to independent federal investigators, according to results of a federal watchdog report made public Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office outlined the concerns in its report, noting that the U.S. Energy Department is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes of challenges at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

A multimillion-dollar project is underway at the underground facility to install a new ventilation system so that full operations can resume, following a radiation leak in 2014 forced the repository's closure for nearly three years.

Operations after it reopened had to be throttled back because parts of the facility were contaminated and airflow was reduced.

Federal officials have said that the construction project will ensure that the repository can meet the Energy Department's needs for disposing of tons of Cold War-era waste left behind by decades of bomb making and nuclear research.

But the Government Accountability Office report stated that the Energy Department faces construction and regulatory risks that might delay its plans.

According to Energy Department documents, the ventilation project as of last fall was projected to cost about $486 million, nearly 70% more than originally planned. The project also is about three years behind schedule, with a new estimated completion date of January 2026.

The Energy Department had blamed significant cost overruns and delays on the contractor's inexperience and difficulties in attracting workers to the area, an expansive desert that is also home to one of the most productive oilfields in the world.

While some corrective measures were taken, department officials told the Government Accountability Office that they have not updated an internal system that is meant to track risks and mitigation measures.

Without the updates, Energy Department officials may not be able to meet their waste disposal schedule, "which could in turn create shipping delays and cost increases for the sites that are generating the waste," the accountability office's report said.

The report reiterated that the repository is running out of permitted space for waste and that the Energy Department has a large amount of "transuranic waste" — which typically consists of lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements — at sites around the country that still requires disposal.

The repository was carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile below the surface, with the idea that the shifting salt would eventually entomb the radioactive waste.

Its current footprint includes eight panels, which the Energy Department estimates will be filled in 2025. There are plans for two new panels in the short term, but the report noted that it's unclear whether the new space will be ready in time to prevent an interruption of disposal operations.

New Mexico regulators also have yet approve permit changes and other requests from the Energy Department, and it's unclear how long that will take.

Department officials in a response to the report agreed with the recommendations aimed at addressing the root causes of the cost increases and construction delays to ensure "that DOE projects benefit taxpayers while reducing the risk to human health and the environment."

Nuclear watchdog groups have been critical of the Energy Department. They have raised concerns about the repository's future, citing the increase in defense-related waste that will need to be disposed of when production of key components for the country's nuclear arsenal ramps up at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Police identify man suspected of shooting 3 in Albuquerque – Associated Press

Authorities on Tuesday released the name of a man suspected of shooting three people in the same northeast Albuquerque neighborhood where he lived before he was shot and killed by police officers.

Albuquerque police said 52-year-old John Dawson Hunter is believed to have fatally shot 31-year-old Alicia Hall as she was driving her vehicle Monday afternoon in the Foothills area.

Hunter also is suspected of shooting and wounding a man and a female teenager. Both victims suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Their names haven't been released.

"Investigators have reason to believe Hunter was suffering some sort of mental crisis when he started shooting randomly at people in the area of his home," police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that Hunter's parents had lived in the one-story brick house since 1994 and he inherited it after his mother died in 2013.

Police said Hunter was later killed after an altercation with officers and two handguns were found at the scene.

Three police officers suffered minor injuries during the gunfire that resulted in Hunter's death, according to police.

They said it appears the officers' injuries may have resulted from gunshots that struck a cinderblock wall that broke up and sent debris in their direction.

APS to make layoffs amid slumping enrollmentAlbuquerque Journal, KUNM News

The state’s largest school district will need to make staffing cuts in the fall to cope a deficit brought on by sagging enrollment.

The Albuquerque Journal reports Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder announced Monday the district is about $17 million in the hole and, as a result, will need to let about 300 employees go, or about 5% of it staff district wide.

Elder says this is the first time he’s seen APS make significant layoffs like this during his more than 30 years at the district.

Elder says that the drop in enrollment isn’t just because of the pandemic, though it’s played a role. He also cited a declining number of youth in the area over the last several years.

According to district data, APS enrollment was down by more than 5,000 students this school year and has dropped by about 12,000 students since 2016.

As a result, Elder says APS’s budget will likely shrink by $17.5 million dollars for the next school year.

This news comes as teacher raises were signed into law this month for the fiscal year beginning in July. Elder says the district’s smaller budget will not have an effect on the pay bumps.

State Dems to meet again about possibility of extraordinary session – Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

Democrats in the state House and Senate are expected to discuss again Tuesday night whether to call an extraordinary session of the legislature to override Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto of the junior bill.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports tonight’s caucus meetings follow those held Friday after a decision wasn’t made. Democratic Sen. George Muñoz told the New Mexican that agreeing to convene the session remains possible.

Muñoz does not believe the state’s Democrats have consensus, but says he thinks a little less than half are on board and that they could have the numbers if enough Republicans join the vote to convene the session. Several GOP lawmakers have signaled support for the override.

The initiative needs approval from three-fifths of the legislators in each chamber to move ahead.

At issue is the $50 million outlay bill Lujan Grisham vetoed earlier this month, which included funding for a variety of projects approved by the legislature in their 30-day session amid record-high state income due to oil and gas revenue and federal pandemic aid.

The governor had argued that the bill circumvented a standard vetting process and could lead to waste.

Meanwhile, the governor herself could convene a special session for issues of her choosing. The New Mexican reports various lawmakers said Monday they heard that was possible in an effort to create relief amid rising gas prices.

'Little Miss Nobody' identified over 60 years later with DNA - Associated Press

"Little Miss Nobody" finally has a name.

The Yavapai County Sheriff's office said Tuesday the previously unidentified little girl whose burned remains were found over 60 years ago in the Arizona desert was 4-year-old Sharon Lee Gallegos, of New Mexico.

The child's remains were found on July 31, 1960, partially buried in a wash in Congress, Arizona. Her age at various times over the years was estimated to be between 6 and 8 years old, then later at between 3 and 6 years old.

Residents in the nearby central-north Arizona community of Prescott raised money for a funeral and florists and a mortuary donated their services for the little girl they had dubbed "Little Miss Nobody."

News reports at the time said a local radio announcer and his wife stood in for the girl's parents during the funeral at Prescott's Congregational Church.

"I guess I just couldn't stand to see a little child buried in boot hill," KYCA announcer Dave Paladin was quoted as saying in an Aug. 11, 1960 article by The Associated Press.

Sharon Lee Gallegos was reportedly abducted from behind her home in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 21, 1960, a little over a week before her body was found. Authorities say they do not know who took and killed the child.

The remains were exhumed to get DNA samples and the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and others worked on the case.

The sheriff's office and Texas DNA company Othram raised $4,000 earlier this year to pay for specialized testing that finally identified the girl.

Ray Chavez, the child's nephew, thanked authorities at the news conference for not giving up their quest to identify his aunt. He said she had been described to him as a happy-go-lucky girl.

"We were amazed how the people rallied around her," Chavez said. "Thank you for keeping my aunt safe and never forgetting her."

New state agency aims to help families in child welfare cases - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico 

As a child, Alyssa Davis was in and out of courtrooms — so many, she said, that she stopped keeping track after around 30 appearances.

She grew up in state foster care, “from zero to 18-years-old,” and was routinely meeting a different attorney representing her in a case five minutes before they saw the judge.

Her mother struggled to maintain custody, and eventually, Davis was adopted by a woman in Santa Fe. That ended due to abuse, she said.

Davis, now 24, recalled one court appearance where she met a new lawyer to discuss the case and her goals moving forward while her foster mother was in the room.

“She was literally staring me down the entire time. Only I would feel that look. So anyone else in the room would be like, ‘She’s looking at her waiting for her to talk.’ No, that look was like, if I say anything I’m gonna get seriously hurt when I get home,” Davis said.

Those experiences informed her testimony before state lawmakers, who listened and then passed a law during the recent 30-day legislative session creating the Office of Family Representation and Advocacy. It will provide lawyers for children and parents engaged in child welfare cases or foster care.

“It was frustrating not having that attorney to actually spend time with me before court and actually go over my goals or what I want to do with my life,” she said, “instead of just having me survive in a system until I was 18 and then figure it out on my own.”

Consistency in a courtroom for people who are struggling with addiction or for children who might not know where they will sleep that night is part of the mission for the new office that was created as an executive agency, said state Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora.

“I want each and every party to have good quality representation, because that means I’m getting the best, most informative presentation and that means I’m going to make the best, most informed decision and that’s what the public deserves, especially when it’s involving children,” Zamora said.

The legislation signed last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was built from a 2019 Senate Joint Memorial that created the Family Representation Task Force. Their objective was to design new models for how to give New Mexicans in the foster care system high-quality legal representation.

The task force met last Friday, triumphant in the creation of the new office. And while the moment was jovial, the work to get everything together so attorneys can be ready to serve clients within nine months shadowed the legislative victory celebration.

First, the office will need to hire a director and then five regional managers to operate statewide. Then, 13 people with experience in family law, such as attorneys and judges, will be appointed to an oversight commission. Community members with lived experience, like Davis, will also be part of the commission.

From there, the office must build a team of lawyers to help with anything that goes before a judge in children’s court, including custody hearings and status conferences to check the progress of parents working through counseling or treatment programs that can help them get back to their kids.

Zamora is part of the task force and said a vital part of the first phase will include identifying attorneys who can not only represent families in court but people who will also serve as governing members in the office.

Not only is consistency key for families, but it can also alleviate delays in cases that clog up judicial calendars.

“If the attorneys are better prepared, if the attorneys who represent children and families have the resources they need — if they have their own social workers, their own caseworkers, their own navigators, their own peer mentors available — I think that will also expedite matters,” she said.

Zamora said the office will likely have to contract with attorneys in order to meet the mission of having five regional offices that serve people statewide, eventually building a pool of lawyers who are also paid enough to match their workload.

“One thing we’re hoping to do with this office — and I don’t see how it wouldn’t happen — is increase the pay,” Zamora said. “These are like the public defenders. These attorneys currently are some of the lowest paid attorneys, and by increasing pay for these attorneys, I think that will help as well with the high turnover you see.”

Consistent representation in court is something Queva Hubbard said would have helped her while struggling to keep up with the demands of the judicial system and figuring out treatment for substance abuse issues. Hubbard lost custody of her kids in 2011, she said, and eventually served jail time.

“I’m not gonna blame it on the system,” Hubbard said. “But I will say that the system did not support me,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard said she gave up, and kept going down the path that led to losing custody rights and jail time.

“Eventually, I just backed away. But my shame and guilt had a lot to do with it as well. I felt as though, during that time, I didn’t have a voice, because I knew that I was an addict. I knew what I had done to my kids. I knew where I was heading to. I knew I was heading to incarceration,” she said. “I only met with my attorney like one or two times, it was prior to court, and it was just like, ‘OK, this is what it is,’ It was so fast. The information that was given to me was so fast. I wasn’t even able to process it.”

When she got out, she was refocused with help from counseling services. But she still felt intimidated, she said, as she tried to restore her parental rights in court. This was, after all, the same system that she’d only experienced when it was time to punish her for criminal allegations.

Hubbard had to figure out how to navigate the system on her own, she said, and is now reunited with her kids. She’s also part of the coalition that made the Office of Family Representation and Advocacy a reality.

While the office will focus primarily on legal representation, it must also connect families to services such as parent advocates, social workers and counseling services.

“Everybody has their role defined,” Hubbard said. For people who are part of cases, those roles will be clear, she added.

“I know when coming from a legal standpoint, they’re fighting for my family. I know coming from a social worker standpoint, she’s clinically going to give me her best advice and my parent advocate is there, because she’s been through it, so she sees when I’m emotional,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard’s history propelled her toward a path to help others. She is optimistic, she said, that the new office will make it easier for people that simply do not know what to do when the stakes are high before a powerful entity like the courts.

“I want to say I’m proud of myself, but I don’t want to pat myself on the back until I know every parent in New Mexico has proper legal representation,” she said. “Then once that happens, you know, I’ll wave the white flag and I may just go lay down and rest.”

VA proposal to close rural health clinics spurs opposition - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has released a list of community-based clinics that it proposes to close in New Mexico and other rural areas around the country as part of a years-long process aimed at modernizing the department and streamlining its infrastructure.

Some members of Congress vowed immediate opposition Monday, saying the clinics provide the only access to care for thousands of veterans.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, said the analysis done by the VA has flaws, including that it was based on data collected before the coronavirus pandemic put a strain on health care systems in New Mexico and elsewhere. He said many providers have disappeared over the last years, leaving a void.

There are four clinics in New Mexico that are on the list, with three of them serving predominantly Native American and Hispanic populations in areas that are typically underserved. They are in Gallup, Las Vegas, Española and Raton.

"I have no intention of seeing these four clinics close. They're just too damn important to veterans in New Mexico," Heinrich said during an interview.

Heinrich spoke with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough on Monday, while Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández fired off a letter to the secretary in an effort to make their case early in what will be a multi-year process.

The recommendations will be considered by a special commission that is being nominated now. The commission will conduct public hearings as part of its review before submitting its own recommendations to the president for consideration in 2023.

In visiting with constituents from rural New Mexico, Leger Fernández said she has heard how hard it is to get care.

"The commission clearly fails to understand that in our rural areas targeted for closures, there are insufficient health care providers in the community," she said. "Even more troubling is that these recommendations contradict the VA's own findings from the local veteran stakeholder listening sessions it conducted as part of the report. This appears to say that the VA listened, but didn't hear."

Regional VA officials briefed state officials ahead of the release of the report, saying the document recommends closing VA facilities in areas of the country with declining populations or usage. That includes in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the rural West.

In New Hampshire, Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster said her state is the only one in the country without a full-service VA hospital, which creates unique challenges in access to care for veterans there. She pointed to treacherous driving conditions and long commutes particularly during the winter months.

"More than 10% of the New Hampshire population is made up of veterans," she wrote to McDonough. "We owe the men and women who have served our nation in uniform a tremendous debt of gratitude. Their service and sacrifice must be met with our commitment to ensure that every veteran is able to access the care and support they need."

McDonough said in a statement posted on the VA's website that the agency came to the recommendations by asking what would be best for veterans. He added that the agency spent several weeks talking with VA employees, unions, state partners, veteran service organizations and members of Congress.

Regional VA officials said the recommendations in the report are open for debate.

Election audit prompts pushback from New Mexico auditor - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The state auditor is the latest top Democratic official to push back against an independent audit of the 2020 election in one rural New Mexico county, as questions about irregularities and fraud continue to circulate in more conservative pockets across the U.S.

State Auditor Brian Colón's office sent a letter Monday to Otero County commissioners saying the county is deficient in its ability to properly oversee contract compliance, pointing specifically to a recent contract signed with the private company it hired to review election records.

The letter also stated that the audit isn't in the best interest of residents and amounts to political grandstanding.

"It appears that the County Commission failed to treat their government position as a public trust and instead used the powers and resources of their public office to waste public resources in pursuit of private interests concerning unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud," the letter reads.

County Commissioner Couy Griffin was quick to address the letter's allegations. If the state has nothing to hide, he said there would be no harm in following through with the audit.

"The state wants to say that they have done audits on our election, but in my opinion that is like the criminal heading the investigation," Griffin told The Associated Press, saying he did not trust the secretary of state and only becomes more suspicious as New Mexico politicians apply more pressure on the county to stop the audit.

Nearly a year and a half after the 2020 election, the U.S. continues to grapple with claims surrounding President Joe Biden's win. Ballot reviews have been conducted across the country, from Arizona's Maricopa County to Fulton County, Pennsylvania.

In Wisconsin, a former state Supreme Court justice examining the 2020 election in that battleground state laid out his interim findings just weeks ago and recommended that legislators consider decertifying that state's presidential result — a move attorneys have said is illegal.

An Associated Press review of votes cast in battleground states contested by former President Donald Trump also found too few cases of fraud to affect the outcome.

In conservative-leaning Otero County, Griffin said door-to-door canvassing has turned up cases in which the people who voted did not live at the addresses provided. A ballot scan also is being conducted.

"I can honestly say I don't have skin in this deal. I just want to be able to sleep at night knowing that there's not fraud happening," Griffin said. "The question of fraud is not going to go away until we have independent audits at the county level. That's all we're trying to do — find out the truth."

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico's top election regulator, issued a warning about the audit last week. She told residents to be wary of what she called intrusive questions and potential intimidation by door-to-door canvassers.

The commission in January authorized a $49,750 contract for a countywide review of election records and voter registration information linked to the 2020 general election. They accepted a proposal from EchoMail — one of the contractors hired by Arizona's Republican-controlled state Senate to review election results in Maricopa County.

Though Trump won nearly 62% of the vote in Otero County in 2020, county commissioners have said they are not satisfied with assurances of an accurate midterm election in 2022 by their county clerk or results of the state's risk-limiting audit.

The state auditor's office pointed to three audits done by the county clerk after the 2020 election, saying no inaccuracies were noted and that the error rate between hand counting and machine counting ballots was so low that no additional testing was needed.

Albuquerque police: Suspect killed after shooting 3 people - Associated Press

Albuquerque police officers fatally shot a suspect Monday after responding to reports of a shooting on the city's northeast side in which two people were injured and a woman was found dead on a street in a residential area, authorities said.

Police said the suspect, whose name wasn't immediately released, is believed to have shot all three victims before being killed.

Police Chief Harold Medina said two officers also were hurt while exchanging gunfire with the suspect, but their injuries were not life-threatening. One officer was hit by shotgun pellets below his protective vest, and the other was grazed above the eye.

Authorities had cordoned off a neighborhood as they warned residents to stay indoors and advised drivers to keep away while officers searched the area Monday afternoon.

Medina said officers found a woman with a gunshot wound when they arrived on the scene around 2:30 p.m. They heard shots nearby and made their way up the street to find a man with a gunshot wound to a leg and one woman who was fatally shot in a car.

Police said the male suspect was killed following an altercation with officers outside a house and two handguns were found at the scene.

Medina said multiple officers fired their weapons and will be placed on standard leave while the case is investigated.

Investigators planned to work through the night to piece together what led to the violence and whether the suspect knew the victims.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said during a briefing that it marked another example of gun violence in the city, which had a record number of homicides in 2021.

Suspect who wielded gun outside Santa Fe cafe still at large  - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Authorities are searching for a man who pulled out a gun at a Santa Fe restaurant when he was denied a free cup of coffee.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the shooting happened Saturday at Cafe Pasqual's while customers were present.

According to the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, the suspect was charged for coffee that he was used to getting free. Restaurant staff said he left but returned. He then climbed on top of furniture outside the cafe and showed the gun.

Employees and customers hid in the kitchen.

When deputies arrived, both the suspect and customers had fled.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office is asking for any witnesses to come forward.

When reached Sunday, a manager at Cafe Pasqual declined to comment.

State pulls staff off compiling COVID numbers, plans to remove and obscure some info – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Starting Monday, it will be more difficult to find daily data on the pandemic maintained by the New Mexico Department of Health.

The daily COVID-19 updates will no longer be available broken down by county, officials said.

A staple information source for two years now, the daily county-level updates have long been how the public understood the pandemic. The info was also the basis of public health protections and rules, according to officials, until recently.

Data will no longer be compiled by Health Department staff or sent out to the press each day.

The information won’t be quite the same either. The state is moving to a new way of reporting the data that mimics the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said at a Friday afternoon news conference.

The process will be automated, Scrase said. The automated daily reports will contain case counts, hospitalizations, how many people are on respirators, deaths and some test results.

DOH will no longer report the test positivity rate at all, he added. To find that rate, Scrase said, someone would need to do the math themselves by taking the number of new cases and dividing by the number of positive tests to get the positivity rate at any given time, he said.

There will be a fresh update every weekday, Monday through Friday, at 2 p.m. barring holidays. The epidemiology report page is here on the DOH website.

COUNTY DATA TO COME OUT LESS OFTEN

The state will still be releasing county-level data on a weekly basis, Scrase said, as part of a more detailed weekly report.

“There will be, soon, a county report that translates the CDC data into green, yellow or orange for the counties, per the CDC guidelines,” he said.

Seven-day averages are more accurate than daily counts, he said, and therefore more useful to individuals.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

It took 80 human hours per day to produce every update and news release, Scrase said.

Instead of manually putting together the reports, he said those Health Department employees will be “going back to their real jobs that they had, managing a lot of other really important parts of what the Department of Health does.”

That includes efforts to combat substance use disorder and track other vaccinations. Those employees also can go back to providing regular health care at department offices and clinics, or making in-person visits to hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities. They’ll also resume getting people off the Developmental Disabilities Waiver waiting list and into services, he said.

“We will have access to more detailed data, but we have a Department of Health to run and a whole bunch of other issues of the health of New Mexicans,” Scrase said. “So we’re going to be moving away from very intensive, manual press releases. We’re excited not only to have more automation in the process but also get back to our other work in the Department of Health.”