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KUNM News Update

THURS: Helicopter water drop injures 3 firefighters battling New Mexico’s largest blaze, + More

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Kari Greer
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Lolo National Forest Fires, 2017, Montana: Rice Ridge

Helicopter water drop injures 3 firefighters battling New Mexico’s largest blaze – Bryce Dix, KUNM News

A report is now showing that three firefighters working the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak blaze in northern New Mexico have been injured from thousands of gallons of water dropped from a helicopter on Sunday.

The Vale Interagency Hotshot Crew with the Bureau of Land Management was holding a fire line when a helicopter “missed the identified drop area” for water it was carrying to the edge of the flames.

The load left significant injuries to one member of the team––including face skull fractures and a broken knee cap. That firefighter was transported to a hospital in Albuquerque.

The other two members of the team hit were left with minor injuries.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the type of helicopter that dropped this water can carry between 700 and a couple thousand gallons to fires.

Volcanic cones near peak sacred to tribes gain protection - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A years-long effort to protect land around a New Mexico mountain peak held sacred by many Native American tribes got a major boost Thursday with the announcement that dozens of additional square miles will be set aside for wildlife, cultural preservation and recreation.

The $34 million effort by the national conservation group Trust for Public Land comes as New Mexico and the federal government look to preserve more natural landscapes as part of a nationwide commitment. The goal is to increase green spaces, improve access to outdoor recreation and reduce the risk of wildfires as the pressures of climate change mount.

Trust for Public Land partnered with other organizations and foundations to purchase adjoining properties that make up the sprawling L Bar Ranch, which sits in the shadow of Mount Taylor just west of Albuquerque.

The more than 84 square miles includes grassland, rugged mesas and part of the Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property, which is on the state register of historic places due to its significance to Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona.

Generations before the ranch became privately owned, people from surrounding Native American communities would make pilgrimages to the area and its timber, wildlife and plants provided sustenance beyond the ceremonial ties.

The dormant volcano, now covered with ponderosa pine and other trees, also served as a lookout with notable lines of sight to distance mountain ranges to the east.

Tribal leaders say some of the pilgrimage trails are still evident.

"The pueblo is hopeful that once the purchase is completed an ethnographic study can be conducted to identify areas, locations and sites of cultural significance," said Randall Vicente, governor of Acoma Pueblo.

Part of the property has been conveyed to the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and the rest will be turned over to land managers in the coming years to create what will be the largest state-owned recreation property in New Mexico. A legislative appropriation and money allocated through a federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment helped with the effort.

A management plan will be developed to ensure recreational access with special considerations for areas important to the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni and the Hopi and Navajo people.

Jim Petterson, a regional vice president with Trust for Public Land, called the acquisition significant, saying it will serve as an important island for wildlife, allowing them to move and adapt across a wide range of elevations as temperatures get warmer and precipitation more scarce due to climate change.

In the lower elevations, the remnants of volcanic cones jut up from the valley floor. In the distance are dramatic cliffs that form the edge of mesa tops that are home to grasslands grazed by herds of elk and deer. The area also is home to bear, mountain lions and turkey.

"It's a relatively intact, healthy, just spectacular habitat," Petterson said. "Everything that should be there is there right now, and we have an opportunity to create a tremendous state wildlife area that will endure for generations to come. It's really beautiful."

Nearly 625 square miles in and around Mount Taylor, including lands within the L Bar project, were designated a traditional cultural property through decisions made by the state's Cultural Properties Review Committee in 2008 and 2009. The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the designation in a 2014 ruling.

The movement to protect the area was prompted by proposals to restart uranium mining. In response, tribes took an unprecedented step to detail their spiritual connections to the area in hopes of winning protection.

Similar fights are ongoing with energy development in northwestern New Mexico, where federal officials have agreed to put a hold on new leasing in the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park pending a review.

"The relationship with the land, as Native Americans, we are the stewards of the land. We maintain this harmony with Mother Earth through culture and prayer," Laguna Pueblo Gov. Martin Kowemy said in a statement Thursday. "It is our responsibility to protect and preserve our land for future generations."

New Mexico OKs rule on suspending boards of school districts - Associated Press

The New Mexico Public Education Department has approved a new rule allowing the state to suspend a school district board because of fraud or other serious problems that severely impair the district.

The rule approved last week allows both emergency and nonemergency suspensions of entire boards but not individual members, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The rule includes a requirement that the state provide notice to the district and replaces a rule adopted in 2005 that applied to superintendents, principals and charter school governing boards.

The state in 2021 suspended the Los Lunas and Floyd school boards but department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the revised rule was "an attempt to clarify the suspension process rather than a response to a particular incident."

The New Mexico School Boards Association supported the final version of the new rule.

"The main thing we were pushing for was to ensure the suspension of board members was the last step in a process," Association Executive Director Joe Guillen said Wednesday. "We got that commitment, and you'll see in a couple of places it does mention prior notice and opportunities for the board to address concerns and undergo trainings.

FEMA disaster resource center set up at VFW in Mora – By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

People who want information about federal disaster assistance to help with property loss due to the recent fires in New Mexico now have a place to do so in person.

Federal officials with FEMA and the SBA have set up shop at the VFW Post 1131 located off NM Highway 518 in Mora.

There residents can get help with disaster assistance applications, use computers to upload documents and ask the federal officials questions about receiving compensation or aid.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon combo fire burned more than 315,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest, displacing residents of Mora and San Miguel Counties.

As of Tuesday evening, the fire was 54%contained. Both wildfires started as individual prescribed burns by federal forest officials and combined in late April due to high spring winds to become the largest wildfire in state history.

Residents are no longer dealing with strict evacuation guidelines, so they are returning to their homes and farms, and assessing damage.

Walk-ins are welcome at the disaster recovery center set up in Mora. People can also call the FEMA Helpline, 800-621-3362 or apply online at disasterassistance.gov.

People with insurance are required to file claims with their insurance provider before any claims can be filed with FEMA.

Anyone without insurance can submit their request for assistance at the disaster recovery center, online or by calling the hotline.

Once a claim is filed, FEMA says a letter will be sent in the mail or by email detailing the next steps, including information on setting up a home visit with an inspector to assess property damage.

Convicted rapist pleads not guilty to rapes in Seattle - Associated Press

A man has pleaded not guilty to rape and voyeurism charges in Seattle after completing a prison sentence in New Mexico for raping a Washington woman there in 2017.

Redwolf Pope, who leased apartments in Seattle and Santa Fe, was arrested in 2018 after his house guests gave police videos from his iPad that allegedly showed him raping several women who appeared to be unconscious, court documents said.

A Santa Fe jury in 2020 found Pope guilty of rape and voyeurism, and a judge sentenced him to four years in prison, with credit for over two years already served. Pope claimed the incident was consensual.

Pope was booked May 19 into King County Jail, where he remains in custody in lieu of $500,000 bail, The Seattle Times reported. He pleaded not guilty Wednesday.

Pope was charged in 2018 with two counts of second-degree rape against two women inside his Seattle apartment in 2016 and 2017, charging papers say.

King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Aubony Burns told Chief Criminal Judge Karen Donohue Wednesday that based on additional video evidence he now faces three counts of second-degree rape and three counts of first-degree voyeurism.

Pope, who has claimed Western Shoshone and Tlingit heritage, is an activist who last Thanksgiving appeared as a spokesperson for the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes Foundation to discuss Native-American perspectives on Thanksgiving.

Pope's LinkedIn page describes him as a co-founder for tech startups and lists him as an attorney who has worked for the Tulalip Tribal Court for over a decade.

But Pope's heritage and resume have come under scrutiny since his arrest. While he received a law degree from Seattle University, the Washington State Bar Association previously confirmed he was not a licensed lawyer, and the Tulalip Tribes said he never worked as an attorney there.

Several tribes with Tlingit and Shoshone members also have said they've found no record of Pope's enrollment, though it's unclear whether he has claimed membership to any particular tribe.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, the executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board and an advocate for Native women's rights, has said Pope created a "false identity and posed as a Native man to infiltrate Native communities and prey upon our Indigenous women."

Echo-Hawk said Wednesday she stands by that 2019 statement and that she's grateful police thoroughly investigated his alleged conduct.

Steam railroad to postpone season opening due to fire threat - By Paul Davenport Associated Press

The commission that oversees a historic steam railroad in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado voted Wednesday to delay opening its operating season by nearly three weeks because of the extreme wildfire threats in the region.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad operates passenger trains on 64 miles of narrow-gauge tracks between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. The two states own the railroad, which provides an economic boost to a five-county region.

The commission voted during an emergency meeting to delay the opening from June 11 to July 1, when summer rains are expected to dampen the region.

Thousands of firefighters are currently fighting major wildfires in New Mexico, including the largest in the state's recorded history.

Railroad officials expressed concern about potential devastating fallout if train operations were to spark a major wildfire, citing the possible loss of insurance coverage and being forced to reimburse firefighting and recovery costs.

"If we were to start a fire, I'm not sure we would be able to recover from that," said Billy Elbrock, a railroad commissioner and a Chama village trustee.

Though delaying the season's opening would deal financial blows to both the railroad and the communities that provide lodging to passengers, "we also realize that nobody is going to pay to ride through a black forest so that is part of the consideration," said Scott Gibbs, a commissioner and the railroad's interim president.

The railroad's normal opening on the Memorial Day weekend was already delayed by work to restore its mid-line dining hall damaged by a 2021 kitchen fire.

US Interior Secretary Haaland tests positive for COVID-19 - The 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.

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.

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.

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.”

TOTAL NUMBER OF ORPHAN WELLS IDENTIFIED BY BLM? ZERO

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.”

AGING PUMPJACKS, MILES OF HOSE

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.”