THURS: New Mexico reaches $32M settlement over 2015 mine spill, + More
New Mexico reaches $32M settlement over 2015 mine spill - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico and the U.S. government have reached a $32 million settlement over a 2015 mine spill that polluted rivers in three western states.
Similar environmental accidents will be intolerable in the future as the region grapples with shrinking water supplies amid drought and climate change, the governor said Thursday.
"Every drop is precious," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a news conference. "If we don't have that water, we aren't growing our own food."
The spill released 3 million gallons of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado, sending a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals south to New Mexico, through the Navajo Nation and into Utah through the San Juan and Animas rivers.
Water utilities were forced to scramble and shut down intake valves while farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the contaminants moved downstream.
The New Mexico settlement marks just the latest reached over the past year. Colorado and the Navajo Nation also have inked multimillion-dollar agreements to settle claims and sort out responsibility for continued cleanup at the Superfund site that was established following the spill.
Under the New Mexico agreement, the federal government will make cash payments for response costs, environmental restoration and efforts to mitigate the negative perceptions about the area's rivers following the spill. Money also will go toward water quality monitoring and cleanup activities.
Lujan Grisham called the settlement a turning point for communities in the region.
"While the San Juan and Animas rivers have healed from the spill, it's time for communities like Farmington, Bloomfield, and Aztec to do the same," she said in a statement, saying the money is deserved in light of the federal government's role in the disaster.
The state also received $11 million in damages from the mining companies, and the case against the federal contractors involved is pending.
On Aug. 5, 2015, Environmental Protection Agency contractors attempting cleanup work caused the release of the toxic wastewater. The plume eventually reached Lake Powell in Utah.
Although the rivers are now safe for irrigation and other uses, state and local officials have said the stigma associated with the event has had lasting effects on the region's economy.
The Navajo Nation finalized a $31 million settlement with the federal government this week. The tribe said the plume had traveled through an estimated 200 miles of the San Juan River, which it considers sacred.
Top Navajo officials traveled to the mine site and shared photos and video of the wastewater rushing downstream on social media.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the tribe had pledged to hold accountable all those who caused or contributed to the spill. He added that he was grateful the federal government acknowledged the devastation that it caused.
While New Mexico and the Navajo Nation pursued separate lawsuits, the cases were consolidated and state officials said Thursday that remediation and restoration work will be coordinated.
State officials said a restoration plan will be developed with public input.
New Mexico prosecutor says GOP county must certify vote - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
New Mexico's top prosecutor on Thursday told a Republican-led county commission to comply with an order to certify results from its primary election, the latest development in a case arising from far-right conspiracy theories over voting machines that have spread across the country.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Hector Balderas said the Otero County commission "must comply with the rule of law or we will take legal action."
The governing commission in Otero County refused to certify the local results of the state's June 7 primary because of unspecified concerns with the equipment, even though it has identified no problems with the Dominion systems used by the county to tally paper ballots.
Following the 2020 election, various allies of former President Donald Trump claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election, which President Joe Biden won.
The secretary of state's office asked the attorney general to investigate the Otero County commission for possible violations of state election and government ethics laws. That came after the state Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the county commission to certify its election results.
Otero County Attorney Roy Nichols said an emergency meeting of the commission is scheduled for Friday, ahead of the state's certification deadline. He said he could not speak for the commissioners and it's unclear whether they will vote to certify the results. If they don't, he said it would be possible for state officials to pursue election code violations against them.
So far, all but 10 of New Mexico's 33 counties have certified their results from the statewide primary. No other county officials have said publicly that they intend to vote against certification.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 election, and election experts say the refusal to certify results of free and fair elections threatens the democratic process.
Life prison term upheld for New Mexico man who killed family - Associated Press
The New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday has upheld the life prison sentence of a man who was convicted of fatally shooting his parents and three younger siblings when he was a teenager.
In a dispositional order Thursday, the state's high court rejected arguments by Nehemiah Griego that his sentence was unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment because it denied him an opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation.
Griego was 15 at the time of the 2013 killings at his family's home in Albuquerque.
He was convicted of intentional child abuse resulting in death and two concurrent seven-year sentences for second-degree murder for his parent's deaths.
Griego was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences with the possibility of parole after serving 30 years.
A district court judge found Griego not amendable to treatment as a juvenile and in 2019 sentenced him as an adult to the state prison system.
Now 25, Greigo will be eligible for parole when he's 52.
In his appeal, Griego also argued his convictions should be overturned because his trial attorney was ineffective.
The court order said Griego "merely surmises his treatment will be inadequate" in prison and he "failed to establish that he does not have a 'meaningful opportunity for release' after serving" his sentence.
Griego's legal team is meeting to determine the most appropriate next step in his case.
"It is easy to give up on children who commit terrible crimes and write them off as hopeless. But the truth is that these crimes are rooted in trauma and mental illness and many of the children involved can and will eventually be rehabilitated," said Allison Jaramillo, Griego's attorney.
"Instead of offering this chance for Nehemiah by finding his three life sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court's decision means that he will spend his life in prison for crimes he committed as a child. New Mexico should protect children from the cruel fate Nehemiah is now facing, not give up on them," Jaramillo added.
Summer rainy season sets up across Four Corners region - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press
Some Arizona residents were battered by flooding last year when the summer rainy season known simply as the monsoon unleashed on mountains that have been scorched by flames — a concern again this year for residents in the throes of a particularly ferocious wildfire season.
With the seasonal weather pattern starting Wednesday, many are concerned with flooding as wildfires reduce more of the ponderosa pine forests surrounding Flagstaff in northern Arizona to ash.
The monsoon can be a mixed bag — cooling sweltering cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix but bringing the risk of flooding to mountain towns and low-lying deserts alike. It carries a promise of rain but doesn't always deliver. And even when it does, the moisture isn't shared equally across the Four Corners region and beyond.
The monsoon largely left the region parched in 2019 and 2020 but had a remarkable reversal last year when some cities logged the wettest summers on record.
The outlook this year calls for equal chances of below, above and normal precipitation, although that could change when a new seasonal outlook is released Thursday, climatologists said.
Already, conditions are setting up for moisture to move into northern Arizona and other spots later this week that can aid firefighters but also bring dry lightning that could spark more blazes.
"A lot of beneficial ingredients come with this," said Brian Klimowski, who heads the National Weather Service in Flagstaff. "That's relative humidity that will tend to suppress the fire behavior and, of course, hopefully some rain. But not too much rain. We all know the threat and the risk of post-burn flooding."
Temperatures will warm a bit Thursday and winds will come up in northern Arizona, potentially creating more active behavior on two wildfires burning on the outskirts of the city before moisture rolls in, he said.
Fire crews have corralled about one-third of the larger fire, which has charred more than 35 square miles since it started Sunday. Another wildfire in a more remote area has burned nearly 8 square miles with no containment yet.
Evacuation orders were downgraded Wednesday. While the fires have calmed somewhat and largely are moving away from homes, Coconino County officials urged residents who don't have flood insurance to buy it now. Officials are testing sirens this week in one area prone to flooding, and stocking up on sand bags and concrete barriers to lessen any potential damage, but they won't know the extent of the risk on the latest wildfires until the area can be surveyed.
"It's not realistic that we can stop flooding," the county's public works director, Christopher Tressler, told residents Tuesday night.
The U.S. monsoon is characterized by a shift in wind patterns that pull moisture in from the tropical coast of Mexico. It sets up differently in other parts of the world, including India, northern Australia and Africa where people celebrate the first rain of the season, said Joel Lisonbee, a climatologist and drought information coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In Arizona, about half the rain that falls during the year comes during the monsoon, said state climatologist Erinanne Saffell. Still, the U.S. Southwest is trending toward hotter, drier weather because of climate change.
Those conditions, along with fierce winds, led to a busy wildfire season across the U.S. West this spring. In all, federal officials say more than three dozen large fires have burned more than 1,875 square miles. Over 6,700 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to incidents across the country.
New Mexico has the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., a blaze that has scorched more than 523 square miles and another marching through another corner of the state.
The weather service warned of potentially critical fire danger this week in Colorado's South Park region and eastern plains. Some local governments on Wednesday banned outdoor fires.
In southwest Alaska, a 220-square mile wildfire has been moving through dry grass and brush in the largely treeless tundra away from an Alaska Native village. A front expected to move in Thursday will bring southeast winds that will reduce the threat to St. Mary's.
Temperatures were hot in California's interior Wednesday, but incoming low pressure was expected to cool things down and bring a chance of mountain showers and thunderstorms in the north by the weekend. Forecasters noted a chance of localized fire weather in the eastern Sierra Nevada because of dryness and gusts from the approaching system.
County's refusal to certify the vote hints at election chaos - By Christina A. Cassidy Associated Press
The conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines that erupted during the 2020 presidential contest flared this week in a remote New Mexico county in what could be just a preview of the kind of chaos election experts fear is coming in the fall midterms and in 2024.
The governing commission in Otero County refused to certify the local results of the state's June 7 primary because of the equipment, in what was seen as another instance of how the falsehoods spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies have infected elections and threaten the democratic process.
"We are in scary territory," said Jennifer Morrell, a former election official in Colorado and Utah who now advises federal, state and local officials. "If this can happen here, where next? It's like a cancer, a virus. It's metastasizing and growing."
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 election, which Trump lost to Joe Biden. But that hasn't stopped the false claims, particularly those about Dominion machines.
"I have huge concerns with these voting machines," Otero County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said Monday as she and her two fellow commissioners — all Republicans — voted unanimously. "When I certify stuff that I don't know is right, I feel like I'm being dishonest because in my heart I don't know if it is right."
The commissioners in the conservative, pro-Trump county could point to no actual problems with the Dominion equipment.
New Mexico's secretary of state asked the state Supreme Court to step in and order the county to certify the votes, and the high court did so on Wednesday. That would ensure that the nearly 7,400 ballots that were cast in Otero County are recorded as legal votes. The deadline for county certification is Friday.
In the weeks and months following the election, various Trump allies claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election.
On Monday, the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol presented testimony that Trump was told repeatedly that his claims of a stolen election and rigged voting systems were false and dangerous. That included pushback from his inner circle to the claims about Dominion voting systems, which are used by jurisdictions in 27 states.
Former Attorney General William Barr, in a videotaped interview with House investigators, said he spoke with Trump about the "idiotic claims" surrounding Dominion.
Barr said he found them to be "among the most disturbing allegations" because they were "made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people." He added that the claims were doing a "grave disservice to the country."
Trump ignored that, and his allies persisted in attacking Dominion. According to the House panel, the day after Barr spoke with Trump, the president released a video in which he claimed without proof that "with the turn of a dial or the change of a chip, you can press a button for Trump and the vote goes to Biden."
Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against various Trump associates and conservative media organizations, including Fox News.
The company said in a statement Wednesday that the action by the Otero County commissioners was "yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public's faith in elections."
Otero County, with a population of about 67,000, went for Trump by nearly 62% in 2020. One of the commissioners is Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin, who was convicted of entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — during the Jan. 6 uprising.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said the commissioners were violating the law and their oaths of office in refusing to certify the vote. She said that there is a process to deal with any problems that arise with an election but that the commissioners did not specify any.
"Unfortunately, when one county decides to act completely outside the law, it gives credence to others who may want to do the same thing," she said. "We have the potential to see this spread and have a domino effect."
Numerous procedures are in place, including pre- and post-testing of voting equipment and post-election audits that ensure machines are working properly. In New Mexico, voters mark their paper ballots by hand. The ballots are then fed into a scanner to tally the results.
Vulnerabilities do exist, as with any technology, but election officials work to identify and fix them. A recent advisory issued by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency highlighted certain vulnerabilities discovered in Dominion voting systems and provided recommendations to election officials.
But those pushing false claims about voting systems want more than just paper ballots cast by hand -- they also want ballots to be counted entirely by hand. Experts say this is unreliable, time-consuming, labor-intensive and entirely unnecessary given the various safeguards.
Among the most prominent advocates for this is Jim Marchant, a former state lawmaker who on Tuesday was selected as the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada. Marchant is among a group of "America First" candidates seeking to oversee elections while denying the outcome of the last one.
Election experts say the Otero County case is a warning of what could happen if candidates who repeat electoral falsehoods and misinformation gain responsibility for overseeing voting.
"This is just a taste of what we could see in the future, as election deniers are running for positions with control over elections all over the country," said David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who leads the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Feds award $7M for tribal language programs - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico
Santo Domingo Pueblo and Diné College are part of the 45 tribes and tribal organizations that are receiving federal money to boost traditional language programs.
The Living Language Grant Program is part of the Indian Affairs Office of Indian Economic Development and is designed for language revitalization programs for Indigenous communities.
“For more than 150 years, Native languages in the U.S. have been subjected to suppression and elimination from a variety of factors such as federal boarding and other types of schools that forced American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children to forgo speaking the language of their people,” according to a statement from the Indian Affairs Department.
In total, $7 million in grants will go to tribal communities across the U.S.
Diné College, located in Tsaile, Arizona, was awarded $60,189. Santo Domingo Pueblo will receive $123,795.
Nearly $10 million was requested from 59 different tribes. The grant proposals were determined based on how the money would be spent on language programs that are dealing with a significant loss of the traditional language within the tribal community.
Other factors included a basis for how instruction could prevent “intergenerational disruption,” and an estimated number of students that would take language courses, according to the Indian Affairs Department.
Traditional language preservation is essential for boosting student outcomes in public schools while rebuilding stronger ties to tribal culture and community, according to the department.
In 2021, the Department of Interior announced an initiative to restore and protect Native languages. In the Interior’s report on federal Indian boarding school initiatives, it cited language loss as an outcome of the generational trauma inflicted on Indigenous communities stemming from the genocidal school programs.
“Native language preservation has for many years been cited by Indigenous leaders as important to their self-preservation, self-determination and sovereignty,” said Assistant Indian Affairs Secretary Bryan Newland. “Native preservation and language revitalization is a critical priority because languages go to the heart of a Tribe’s unique cultural identities, traditions, spiritual beliefs and self-governance.”
In New Mexico, education reform advocates say traditional languages are paramount to any future that seriously takes into consideration the needs of Native American students.
The state recently signed into a law a new pay scale that will boost traditional language teachers salaries upward toward $60,000 a year.
New Mexico governor concerned with potential migrant influx - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico's Democratic governor is asking that the Biden administration delay planned or expanded efforts to transport migrants to her state if pandemic-related restrictions on asylum seekers are lifted.
The federal government has predicted a threefold increase in border crossings if that happens, and first-term Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday an influx of migrants would dramatically affect the border state's capacity to provide ongoing humanitarian assistance to thousands of New Mexico residents displaced by historic wildfires this spring.
She outlined her concerns in a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejando Mayorkas.
The governor is among Democrats who would be forced to play defense in an already difficult midterm election year if there were an increase in illegal border crossings.
Lujan Grisham told Mayorkas that border issues and flaws in the immigration system need to be addressed and that public safety and health are paramount. She went on to say that she doesn't believe the department can adequately address the concerns if existing limitations on migrant entry are lifted.
"New Mexico (and other border states) will bear the brunt of adverse economic and social impacts that are likely to arise from the influx of migrants without additional planning on the part of the federal government," Lujan Grisham wrote. "I cannot allow this."
The governor recently visited Washington to talk with top officials about wildfire recovery as the largest blaze burning in the U.S. chars more tinder dry forest in northern New Mexico.
The massive fire was the result of planned burns by the federal government to clear out vegetation and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. With the flames escaping containment, thousands of residents were forced to flee and rural communities now face threats of post-fire flooding and other problems.
Lujan Grisham said New Mexico's resources already have been taxed by the wildfire emergencies and it cannot "shoulder additional burdens falling squarely within the federal government's purview."
A federal judge last month blocked the Biden administration's plan to lift the migrant restrictions, ordering that they stay in place while a lawsuit led by Arizona and Louisiana — and now joined by 22 other states — plays out in court.
Migrants have been expelled more than 1.9 million times since March 2020 under Title 42, a public health provision that denies them a chance to request asylum under U.S. law and international treaty on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Aside from ruling that the Biden administration failed to follow administrative procedures requiring public notice and time to gather public comment, the judge cited predictions that ending the restrictions would likely increase border crossings to as many as 18,000 daily. That, the judge noted, would result in more migrants being processed in congregate settings where contagious disease can be spread.
The New Mexico governor's office did not say how many migrants the state could expect if restrictions were lifted.
Lujan Grisham had been a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies, and Republicans in New Mexico repeatedly have criticized her for what they consider a lax stance when it comes to border security.
The issue is expected to be part of the debate ahead of the November election, when Lujan Grisham will face GOP challenger Mark Ronchetti.
Rain is likely on the way as New Mexico’s two largest wildfires spread in dry conditions – By Nash Jones, KUNM News
Over 1,000 firefighters Wednesday were battling the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest in hot, dry and windy conditions.
The fire, which sparked last month, has grown rapidly to over 496 square miles. That’s now just 27 square miles smaller than the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire, the state’s largest.
The Black fire is less than half contained, but fire officials say stormy weather is expected to reach the area later this week, increasing moisture.
Meanwhile, in northeastern New Mexico, nearly 22-hundred firefighters are working to suppress the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire amid similar conditions, with strong winds and near-record highs. Fire officials say the weather conditions have increased the fire’s activity as it spreads northeast into the wilderness, along with the visibility of the smoke.
The National Weather services has forecasted rain to begin Thursday, increasing into the weekend and lasting into next week.
Confederate flag-toting man, son convicted in Capitol riot - By Michael Kunzelman Associated Press
A federal judge on Wednesday convicted a Confederate flag-toting man and his son of charges that they stormed the U.S. Capitol together during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, to obstruct Congress from certifying Joe Biden's presidential victory.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden delivered the verdict from the bench after hearing two days of testimony without a jury for the trial of Kevin Seefried and his adult son, Hunter.
McFadden convicted both Delaware men of a felony count: obstruction of an official proceeding, the joint session of Congress for certifying the Electoral College that day.
The judge also convicted the Seefrieds of misdemeanor charges that they engaged in disorderly conduct and illegally demonstrated inside the building. But he acquitted Hunter Seefried of other misdemeanor charges for clearing a shard of glass from a broken window at the Capitol.
They will remain free pending separate sentencing hearings in September.
McFadden, whom President Donald Trump nominated for the court in 2017, presided over two previous bench trials for Capitol riot defendants. He acquitted one of all charges and partially acquitted another.
Widely published photographs showed Kevin Seefried carrying a Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol after he and Hunter Seefried, then 22, entered the building through a broken window.
McFadden rejected the defense argument that Kevin Seefried never intended to interfere with the congressional proceedings.
"I find that he knew what he was doing," McFadden said.
The judge described Kevin Seefreid as the "prime mover" in their decision to go to Washington on Jan. 6. McFadden said Hunter Seefried's guilt on the obstruction charge was a "closer question," but the judge ultimately concluded that the son engaged in "aggravated conduct" that supported a conviction.
"Hunter Seefried showed a pattern of deception and minimization of his actions" when an FBI agent interviewed him after the riot, McFadden said.
FBI agents said they did not find any evidence linking Kevin Seefried or his son to any far-right extremist groups. Kevin Seefried told an agent that he did not view the Confederate flag as a symbol of racist hate.
The trial included the first public testimony of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who has been lauded for his bravery during the Jan. 6 attack by a mob of Trump supporters. Goodman led a group of rioters away from the Senate chamber as senators and then-Vice President Mike Pence were being evacuated. He also directed Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to turn around and head away from the mob.
Goodman encountered Kevin Seefried before the mob chased the officer up a set of stairs, a harrowing episode captured on video. The officer said the elder Seefried cursed at him and jabbed at him with the base end of his flagpole three or four times without making contact with him.
Another Capitol police officer who confronted the mob near the Senate chamber recalled that Kevin Seefried asked, "Why are you protecting them?"
"I assumed he was talking about Congress," Officer Brian Morgan testified.
The Seefrieds were not charged with assaulting any officers.
Neither defendant testified at their trial.
The father and son traveled to Washington from their home in Laurel, Delaware, to hear Trump's speech at the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6. They were among the first rioters to approach the building near the Senate Wing Door, according to prosecutors.
After watching other rioters use a police shield and a wooden plank to break a window, Hunter Seefried used a gloved fist to clear a shard of glass in one of the broken windowpanes, prosecutors said. But the judge found that two other rioters had destroyed the window before Seefried cleared the shard.
McFadden convicted the Seefrieds of four misdemeanor charges: entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a Capitol building or grounds, and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.
The judge acquitted Hunter Seefried of three other misdemeanor counts: destruction of government property, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with physical violence against property, and acts of physical violence in the Capitol grounds or building.
The Seefrieds, who waived their right to jury trial, were the first Capitol riot defendants to get a bench trial on a felony charge.
In April, McFadden acquitted New Mexico resident Matthew Martin of misdemeanor charges that he illegally entered the Capitol and engaged in disorderly conduct after he walked into the building.
In March, McFadden acquitted a New Mexico elected official, Couy Griffin, of engaging in disorderly conduct but convicted him of illegally entering restricted Capitol grounds. McFadden is scheduled to sentence Griffin on Friday.
Also on Wednesday, a bench trial concluded for Jesus Rivera, a Pensacola, Florida, man charged with four riot-related misdemeanors. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said she intends to issue a written verdict later this week, according to Guy Womack, an attorney for Rivera.
McFadden has criticized prosecutors' handling of Capitol riot cases. He suggested that the Justice Department has been unjustly tougher on Capitol riot defendants compared with people arrested at protests against police brutality and racial injustice after George Floyd's 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
More than 800 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack. Juries have unanimously convicted five Capitol riot defendants of all charges. More than 300 other defendants have pleaded guilty to riot offenses, mostly misdemeanors. Approximately 100 others have trial dates in 2022 or 2023.