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WED: Interior Secretary Haaland tests positive for COVID, Kirtland to be upgraded to serve larger wildfire aircraft, + More

Courtesy Deb Haaland

US Interior Secretary Haaland tests positive for COVID-19 - Associated Press

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has tested positive for COVID-19 and has mild symptoms, the agency said Wednesday.

Haaland, 61, is isolating in Nevada where she took part in a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Las Vegas about clean energy production on public lands, the Interior Department said in a statement.

Haaland began experiencing coronavirus symptoms on Wednesday and tested positive. She is fully vaccinated and has received two booster shots. The statement said she expects to recover quickly.

Haaland canceled travel plans elsewhere in the U.S. West and is working remotely.

Haaland last tested negative on Monday during a visit to the White House and was not in close contact with President Joe Biden, the statement said. Other people who might have been in close contact with Haaland during her travels are being notified.

Facility to be upgraded to serve larger wildfire tankers - Associated Press

A planned $15 million upgrade will allow a Forest Service facility at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque to serve the largest tanker aircraft used to fight U.S. wildfires.

The larger tankers can hold about 5000 gallons of retardant, about three times as much as the aircraft that currently use the Cibola National Forest Air Tanker Base at Kirtland, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who toured the tanker base Tuesday, said improving the base will reduce the time it takes for large aircraft to get involved in fighting wildfires.

"Having this right here in Albuquerque … changes the game in large swaths of New Mexico and all the way into Colorado and our other neighbors," Heinrich said.

The Forest Service uses contractors to fly the planes.

Steven Hattenbach, the Cibola forest's supervisor, said the base has been used for about 400 flights so far this year, with most of the retardant being dropped on New Mexico fires.

Heinrich said a request for proposals for the upgrades has been made public for the construction work. The project could break ground in the fall.

Body recovered after avalanche in Rocky Mountain park - Associated Press

Authorities say rescuers have recovered the body of a man who was killed in a weekend rock fall and avalanche that also injured two other climbers at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said in a statement that a helicopter crew lifted the man's body from the avalanche zone on Mount Meeker on Tuesday. The Boulder County coroner's office planned to release the man's identity after an autopsy, Patterson said.

Two New Mexico climbers were injured in Sunday's avalanche. Michael Grieg, 27, of Albuquerque was airlifted by helicopter and hospitalized at Medical Center of the Rockies. Grieg's condition wasn't known Wednesday.

Lillian Martinez, 24, of Albuquerque suffered minor injuries, Patterson said.

Rescuers worked in winter conditions in terrain above 11,500 feet at the site near Dreamweaver Couloir on Mount Meeker.

The avalanche was witnessed by climbers in the area.

Ahead of elections, GOP candidates and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham differ on gun legislation - KUNM News, Albuquerque Journal 

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham doubled down on her stance to ban AR-style rifles Tuesday, ahead of November’s gubernatorial elections and on the heels of Texas’ deadliest mass shooting.

Meanwhile, Republicans are looking to vote on a primary challenger for the governor next week, with a pool of candidates including former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti, Albuquerque retired general Greg Zanetti, State legislator Rebecca Dow from Truth or Consequences and Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block.

As the Albuquerque Journal reports, every single candidate vying for the chance to win the governorship this fall all oppose a wide ban of military-style rifles––with candidates like Mark Ronchetti who said there should be stiffer penalties for gun crimes and an investment needs to be made in our schools to make them safe.

State legislator Rebecca Dow said there needs to be an alternative solution to not restrict 2nd Amendment rights for New Mexicans.

Democratic majorities in New Mexico’s legislature have a history of gun control. Since 2019, three major gun bills have been signed by the governor.

To understand the orphan well problem in NM, someone’s going to have to count them - Samuel Gilbert, Source New Mexico 

The 50-square-mile stretch of public land known as “the glade” is described on the Bureau of Land Management’s website as a “great spot for the weekend warrior.”

The glade is punctured by 600 oil and gas wells, connected by hundreds of access roads and an arterial network of buried gathering lines that leave unvegetated, eroded scars on the land.

It’s not far from Mike Eisenfeld’s home. He’s the energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. He lives in Farmington, N.M, an agricultural community transformed into a center of oil and gas production.

“You should be reclaiming and revegetating well pads and pipeline right of ways,” Eisenfeld said, driving past a cleared well pad, his voice sputtering as his truck traversed the washboard roads that have become a popular off-roading venue for locals. “And cleaning up the mess you have created.”

The U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure package last year with nearly $44 million to plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells in New Mexico. The first round of funding is part of a nationwide push to address growing concerns over abandoned wells’ environmental and health impacts — particularly the release of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

“Orphan wells are an enormous source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than CO2,”  wrote Sen. Martin Heinrich in an emailed statement to Source New Mexico. “These emissions have devastating impacts on our climate and the health of our communities.”


According to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD), the agency charged with regulating oil and gas production, 1,741 orphaned and abandoned wells have been identified so far on state and private land.

“We are continuing to work to refine the numbers, looking through well files and other available data,” said Adrienne Sandoval, director of the division. Her agency plans to use drones and other technology to locate more orphan wells sites. “That number is going to continue to fluctuate and possibly grow. We are gaining a better understanding of the problem.”

While many have lauded the move to identify and plug orphan wells, the true scope of the problem in New Mexico is still poorly understood. On federal lands in New Mexico — where the majority of oil and gas extraction takes place — the number of orphan wells is still unknown.

The Bureau of Land Management leases oil and gas permits on such land. Through the agency’s process of reviewing records and inspecting wells deemed high-priority, BLM has not identified any on federal lands in the largest oil and gas region in the state, according to a spokesperson.

“BLM New Mexico is not aware of any federally managed orphaned wells residing under its administration within the state of New Mexico,” wrote BLM’s Allison Sandoval in an email to Source New Mexico.

Eisenfeld said this is dubious, and that there are likely many on BLM land.

Logan Glassenap, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, agrees.

“We know there is a problem. We don’t know its scope,” he said. In March, the alliance wrote a letter to BLM requesting an audit of all inactive oil and gas wells.

“We do know what it will take to get this under control,” Glassenap said. “But the first step is to figure out how many there are.”

In the San Juan Basin — New Mexico’s largest oil and gas region — there are nearly 40,000 wells located primarily on federal and tribal lands. Eisenfeld estimates there are likely thousands of wells in the region that, while not classified as orphaned, are “in some state of neglect, idleness or abandonment.”

“The problem is bigger than anyone realizes,” said Eisenfeld, piloting his gray Tacoma toward the Horseshoe Gallup Field in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, home to hundreds of non-producing wells. “Were at the cusp or really trying to assign liability and responsibility. That’s a good thing, but this will not be an easy fix.”


Eisenfeld first visited the Horseshoe Gallup Field after following a tip from a local rancher. The field is in a valley northwest of the San Juan Generating Station, the massive coal plant located in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. What Eisenfeld found was a landscape of aging oil and gas infrastructure, including 122 wells that have not produced oil or gas in at least five years, according to data from the Oil Conservation Division.

“These wells pose numerous environmental threats,” Eisenfeld said. “The government, as far as we can tell, considers these active sites and is not concerned about them.”

Judging by the state of some of the oil and gas infrastructure, five years seems like a low assessment of their age. The oil and gas field is littered with aging pumpjacks, exposed metal gas lines, and miles of rubber hoses carrying natural gas that mirror an expansive, ad hoc irrigation system braiding through the desert.

“Those hoses are not supposed to be permanent,” said Eisenfeld, crossing an arroyo and driving up a small hill to a collection site where “gathering” lines from nearby wells feed into a series of storage tanks.

The site appears unmaintained — rusted metal tanks and plastic barrels of chemicals with indiscernible labels bleached white from the sun. An overflowing waste container in one corner of the site emits a powerful smell of raw oil. These containers, according to Eisenfeld, are supposed to be emptied regularly.

“This personifies a dump zone,” said Eisenfeld, standing between an old yellow tanker truck, tires exposed to the rims, and the oil-stained ground near the waste container.

It’s an important question. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, nonproducing unplugged wells can leak “oil and other toxic chemicals” that contaminate water sources, contribute to air pollution and emit methane, the main component of natural gas.

The latter is of particular concern in the San Juan Basin, which has the highest concentration of methane pollution in the U.S.

Understanding the true scope of the problem will be crucial in plugging wells, Glassenap said, and thus reducing methane emissions and environmental damage.

“Whatever funding might come from the infrastructure bill, we won’t know how sufficient that funding is until we get an idea of the scope of the problem.”

According to the OCD, 6,000 wells in New Mexico have not produced in more than a year, and 2,600 of those are on federal lands.

“If there were 10 of me, we could find thousands,” Eisenfeld said, noting the limited resources of his organization.

Where do we send the bill?

Orphan wells are part of a larger “culture of abandonment” that has defined the oil and gas industry since oil was discovered in the region a century ago, Eisenfeld said.

In that time, the San Juan Basin has experienced numerous boom-and-bust cycles, with companies coming and going with fluctuating demand. Companies frequently declare bankruptcy and renege on environmental obligations to plug wells.

“With limited capital and the possibility of bankruptcy, oil and gas operators may not be able to plug wells and reclaim facilities effectively,” said the OCD in 2020.

Reclamation has been piecemeal and best. The industry has left an indelible mark on the landscape.

“It’s a real problem. It’s not just oil and gas but any extractive industry,” Glassenap said. “We have legacy mines that remain a problem 100 years later,” Glassenap said. “No one knows where to send the bill.”

Polls are open in Mora County as residents return home – By Shaun Griswold,Source New Mexico

A week before Primary Election Day, Mora County Clerk Carlos Arellano is running the final days of early in-person voting, as residents are returning home weeks after the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire forced evacuations and destroyed homes.

Source New Mexico’s Shaun Griswold reports voting numbers are down. A county that averages between 16- and 17-hundred voters for primary elections, Arellano says Mora has so-far counted 161 ballots and received just over 100 absentee ballots.

Part of that can be blamed on the fact that he had to move their usual polling site an hour away to Wagon Mound, for safety reasons.

The clerk re-opened its normal location in Mora last week, and Arellano said more people are filing in to vote, but he’s expecting a smaller turnout because of the reality residents have to face when they return home.

Arellano said he is anticipating at least 12-hundred votes by the end of the day on Primary Election Day. He says he’s ready for next Tuesday, and in the meantime, he’ll be sweeping away the ashes of what the state’s largest wildfire has burned in his community.

Crews slow northern flank of Black Fire with humidity set to rise - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

As a new Incident Management Team took the lead fighting the Black Fire in southwestern New Mexico yesterday morning, officials said they’ve been able to limit the fire’s growth despite heavy wind gusts.

Winds will start picking up today across the Gila National Forest, where the blaze has now charred over 385 square miles in warmer and dry conditions.

Officials say the nearly 760 firefighters assigned to the fire were able to hold the fire’s northern side, but it continues to spread south and east. The forecast calls for increased humidity into this morning, which is expected to ease the fire’s activity.

A community meeting is scheduled for tonight [Wed] at 6 p.m. at the Sapillo Volunteer Fire Station in Mimbres.

Crews hold containment of Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire at 50%, as evacuation orders ease - By Megan Kamerick, KUNM News

Fire managers on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire say they have made good progress containing the massive blaze and limiting its growth.

The fire is now 50 percent contained and stands at over 492 square miles. Both fires began as prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service before combining to become the largest fire in state history.

The Santa Fe New Mexicanreports that just one community remains in the “go” evacuation status, the Pecos Canyon corridor that is bisected by state highway 63. But officials said residents of San Miguel, Mora, Taos, Colfax and Santa Fe counties should remain on alert for changes to evacuation statuses and road closures.

The hottest areas of the fire continue to be north of the Pecos Canyon area near Spring Mountain where the steep, rugged terrain makes it difficult to place firefighters.

New Mexico man accused in woman's killing caught in Arizona - Associated Press

A New Mexico man accused of shooting the mother of his child to death with the toddler in the room has been captured in Arizona.

Lovington Police Chief David Miranda told KOB-TV in Albuquerque as he was driving back from Holbrook, Arizona, Monday that 26-year-old Zion Gibson killed the victim as the 3-1/2-year-old girl was nearby.

According to investigators, 25-year-old Rosa Trujillo called 911 on May 23 when Gibson showed up outside her home in Lovington.

The dispatcher heard Trujillo yell that Gibson broke a window and had a gun. Then the sound of gunfire erupted with nearly a dozen rounds heard.

Authorities say Gibson called the victim's parents and told them to check on the child because he had just killed Trujillo.

Miranda says Gibson drove into Arizona. State police there took over pursuing him. He crashed his car in Holbrook and surrendered after a brief standoff.

He will be transported back to New Mexico.

Gibson is expected to be charged with first-degree murder and other counts.

It was not immediately known Tuesday if he had an attorney.

Jury deliberates verdict in 'We Build The Wall' fraud trial - By Larry Neumeister Associated Press

A prosecutor told jurors in closing arguments at a criminal trial Tuesday that there is overwhelming evidence that organizers of a "We Build The Wall" campaign to raise millions of dollars for a wall along the U.S. southern border defrauded investors by lying to them.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Sobelman urged Manhattan federal court jurors to deliver guilty verdicts on fraud and conspiracy charges against the lone defendant: Timothy Shea.

"You will quickly see that the evidence is overwhelming," the prosecutor said as he delivered a rebuttal after defense attorney John Meringolo told the jury that an acquittal was the only fair verdict.

Jurors deliberated for a short time late Tuesday without reaching a verdict. Their work resumes Wednesday morning.

Former presidential adviser Steve Bannon was once a defendant in the case, but ex-President Donald Trump pardoned him as he left office last year. Two other defendants had pleaded guilty to charges and await sentencing.

Meringolo insisted in his closing that there were multiple ways that jurors could conclude there was reasonable doubt and that an acquittal was fair.

"There are two sides to every story," he said. "Their story has doubt and their story has reasonable doubt."

As he had in his opening statement a week earlier, Meringolo insisted that a company prosecutors say was created to carry out a fraud — Ranch Property Management — was not the shell company the government claimed it was. And he said prosecutors were wrong to say his client didn't work.

"It wasn't a shell company. Tim worked," he said.

Sobelman and Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos in an earlier closing argument attacked the motives of Shea, who owns an energy drink company, Winning Energy, whose cans have featured a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain "12 oz. of liberal tears."

They maintained that Shea, of Castle Rock, Colorado, and his former codefendants siphoned money from the fund, which raised over $25 million from thousands of donors after it was created in late 2018.

"No one donates to a nonprofit thinking that the nonprofit is going to loan money to an energy drink company," Sobelman said.

"They stole and looted from the organization," Roos said, citing hundreds of thousands of dollars that did not go to a stretch of several miles of wall that resulted from the fundraising effort.