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THURS: NTSB says father was driving truck that hit NM golfers' van, + More

FILE - A golfer drives by a makeshift memorial at the Rockwind Community Links, on March 16, 2022, in Hobbs, New Mexico. The memorial was for student golfers and the coach of University of the Southwest killed in a crash in Texas. The father of a 13-year-old boy, not the teen, was driving a pickup that struck the team's van federal officials said on Thursday, July 14. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
John Locher/AP
With more than 1100 new cases yesterday, New Mexico passed 8,000 deaths as a new subvariant rears its head for the first time. Health officials said masking up, washing hands, socially distancing and testing are all key to keeping those numbers down.

NTSB: Dad, not boy, was driving truck that hit golfers' van - By Jamie Stengle Associated Press

A Texas man, not his 13-year-old son, was driving the pickup truck that crossed into the oncoming lane and struck a van carrying New Mexico college golfers, killing nine people, and he had methamphetamine in his system, investigators said Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said two days after the March 15 collision in rural West Texas that its early findings suggested that the 13-year-old was driving the pickup that struck the van carrying University of the Southwest students and their coach back to Hobbs, New Mexico, from a golf tournament in Midland. But the NTSB said in a preliminary report released Thursday that DNA testing confirmed that the father, 38-year-old Henrich Siemens, was driving and that toxicological testing showed the presence of methamphetamine in Siemens' blood.

"This was a very difficult investigation to determine some of the facts based on the catastrophic nature of the damage and the post-crash fire," Robert Molloy, the NTSB's director of highway safety, said at a news conference.

Siemens and his son died in the crash along with six members of the men's and women's golf teams and their coach, who was driving the van, which was towing a cargo trailer.

Molloy said they are still analyzing the toxicological report and that although they know methamphetamine can affect driver performance, it's too early to say whether it was a contributing factor in the crash.

Investigators are still working to determine the probable cause of the crash, and Molloy said he didn't expect a final report until next year.

The collision happened at about 8:17 p.m. in Andrews County, which is roughly 30 miles east of Texas' border with New Mexico.

In the days after the crash, the NTSB had said that the truck's left front tire blew before impact. But it said Thursday that so far, investigators haven't found evidence of a loss in tire pressure or any other indicators that the tire failed.

The NTSB said the road they were traveling on consisted of a northbound lane and southbound lane. Near the crash site, the roadway was straight but there was no highway lighting.

The speed limit on the road was 75 mph, but Molloy said they have not yet determined the vehicles' speeds at the time of the crash.

Those killed in the van were coach Tyler James, 26, of Hobbs, New Mexico; and golfers Mauricio Sanchez, 19, of Mexico; Travis Garcia, 19, of Pleasanton, Texas; Jackson Zinn, 22, of Westminster, Colorado; Karisa Raines, 21, of Fort Stockton, Texas; Laci Stone, 18, of Nocona, Texas; and Tiago Sousa, 18, of Portugal.

Two other students who were in the van were seriously injured.

Most of the students were freshman who were getting their first taste of life away from home at the private Christian university with enrollment numbering in the hundreds. Those who knew James, the coach, said it had been his goal to be a head coach, and he was excited to be there.

The crash was the latest tragedy for the Siemens family, who lived in Seminole, Texas, a rural community of around 7,500 people, some of whom first relocated to the area in the 1970s with other Mennonite families who started farming and ranching operations. Community members had rallied around Siemens and his wife months earlier when a fire that started in the kitchen destroyed the home where they had lived for a decade.

Judge clears New Mexico cop of chokehold death charges - Associated Press

A New Mexico judge has cleared a former police officer of criminal charges after he was accused of killing a suspect with a chokehold more than two years ago.

Defense attorneys for former Las Cruces Police Officer Christopher Smelser had argued that prosecutors failed to prove to prove he knew his actions were dangerous and created a risk of death or great bodily harm to Antonio Valenzuela, 40, after he fled from a traffic stop on Feb. 29, 2020.

The trial started Monday. Judge Douglas Driggers on Thursday sided with Smelser's lawyers, ruling there was insufficient evidence for the trial to continue and dismissing the second-degree murder charge filed against Smelser.

Authorities said Smelser, 29, and another police officer, Andrew Tuton, chased Valenzuela, who was wanted on a warrant for a probation violation, after he bolted from officers after his vehicle was stopped..

The two policemen caught up with Valenzuela, struggled and Tuton testified that he believed Valenzuela had a gun and was reaching for it. But prosecutors said no gun was found.

Prosecutors said Smelser eventually put Valenzuela into a chokehold that gradually ended his life. Smelser was later fired from the police department and indicted in Valenzuela's death.

A medical examiner concluded Valenzuela died from asphyxial injuries due to physical restraint and that the methamphetamine in his system was a contributing factor in his death.

The small southern New Mexico city agreed earlier to pay Valenzuela's family $6.5 million and ban the use of chokeholds by its police officers.

Diggers heard arguments about dismissing the case after prosecutors called 13 witnesses to testify and rested their case.

Smelser's lawyers also argued that the medical examiner was unable to say if Valenzuela would still have died if methamphetamine had not been discovered in his system.

New Mexico sees declining COVID-19 cases, preps for uptick - Associated Press

COVID-19 cases are on the decline in New Mexico, but state health officials said Thursday they're expecting an uptick later this summer as the wave hitting more populated areas around the U.S. spreads.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase provided an update on the pandemic, noting that there have been reinfections as well as breakthrough cases among those who are vaccinated but that infections have been less severe with fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

Scrase said there have been no discussions about reimposing mask mandates since the situation is different than it was in 2020, when more people were dying and hospitals were overwhelmed. He said the virus has evolved, hospitalizations have plateaued in New Mexico, and treatments are readily available.

"We're relying on New Mexicans to use their own good judgment to protect themselves and their families," he said.

Acknowledging the dynamic between freedom and public health, Scrase said he believed that New Mexico did a good job of managing the restrictions early in the pandemic but that state officials don't feel there's a need to reinforce those mandates right now.

Some state lawmakers, rural communities, small businesses, parents and others had criticized Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for her handling of the pandemic early on. Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection, has repeatedly defended her choices.

With new omicron variants driving up hospital admissions and deaths elsewhere in recent weeks, some states and cities are rethinking their responses. For example, Los Angeles County at the end of the month could become the first major population center to reinstate rules requiring face coverings indoors if trends in hospital admissions continue.

Nationwide, the latest surge is driven by the BA.5 and BA.4 variants, which now account for more than 80% of cases. The variants have shown a remarkable ability to get around the protection offered by vaccination.

In New Mexico, officials said the two variants make up less than half of new cases, but they expect that percentage to grow over the next four weeks.

Southern New Mexico county says abortion clinics not welcome - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A local government board in southern New Mexico approved a message Thursday saying that abortion clinics are not welcome in the politically conservative Otero County — even though state law allows most abortion procedures.

The nonbinding anti-abortion resolution, approved in a 3-0 vote, said the commission "stands firmly against the presence in the county of Planned Parenthood clinics or any other clinics where abortion is practiced at will and on demand."

At least two groups have announced plans to open new abortion facilities in New Mexico after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade and took away womens' constitutional protection for abortion nationwide.

One of them is the abortion provider at the center of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision that overturned Roe.

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin sponsored of the resolution that condemns "voluntary abortion" practices. He said it responds to concerns that New Mexico may become a regional hub for people seeking abortions from neighboring states where the procedures are illegal or heavily restricted.

The resolution says abortion procedures aimed at protecting the health of a mother "will take place in a local hospital under the care of a physician," and that the county takes a "neutral position" in instances involving incest or rape.

Otero County Attorney Roy Nichols said the resolution does not have any legal ramifications.

"For his is not going to outlaw anything, this is more for the opinion to be expressed," he said.

The Democrats who control the New Mexico Legislature support access to abortion, as does Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

State lawmakers last year repealed a dormant 1969 law that outlawed most New Mexico abortion procedures as felonies, ensuring access to abortion even after the Supreme Court rolled back the national guarantee.

Raw emotions about government regulation of abortion emerged at the Otero County commission meeting in Alamogordo for debate on the resolution, with dueling references to Christian scripture and quotations from the U.S. founders aimed at bolstering arguments for and against legal abortion access.

Commissioner Gerald Matherly said he voted against a similar anti-abortion resolution three years ago and supported the new measure because it leaves out opposition to abortions in instances of rape, incest or when a woman's life is in danger.

"The state helps (with) birth control pills, they're helping the mothers after the babies are born," Matherly said. "I don't believe that a person can just go out and have a wild Friday night — she gets pregnant and can go off and get an abortion. She should have, some people should have, responsibilities."

Griffin — a firebrand conservative who was convicted of entering a restricted area at the U.S. Capitol in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — urged other rural, conservative counties to adopt identical resolutions to try to contain the proliferation of abortion clinics.

"If the governor wants to embrace it in Santa Fe, if they want to have abortion clinics in Las Cruces, if they want to do it in Albuquerque, they are will within their rights to do so," Griffin said. "But if they don't want it Carlsbad, if they don't want it in Roswell, if they don't want it in Farmington, then those county commission boards need to get the same kind of resolution passed."

Lujan Grisham signed an executive order last month that prohibits cooperation with other states that might interfere with abortion access in New Mexico, declining to carry out any future arrest warrants from other states related to anti-abortion provisions.

The order also prohibits most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

NM passes 8K deaths from COVID — Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News  

As New Mexico surpassed 8,000 deaths from COVID, a new, highly contagious subvariant has reared its head in the land of enchantment.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the new omicron BA.5 subvariant has not only arrived, but is now responsible for 30 percent of cases — and that number is growing quickly.

Earlier this week state health officials encouraged mask wearing while in public or indoors even if you’re fully vaccinated.

While any antibodies in one’s immune system will help stop the worst consequences of the disease, health officials said the new subvariant has a different protein spike that does not match older variants, and is more likely to cause a breakthrough case.

Officials reminded the public that hand washing as often as possible, practicing social distancing, and getting fully vaccinated is the best way to avoid COVID.

Regulators recommend license for spent nuclear fuel storage — Susan Montoya Brown, Associated Press

U.S. nuclear regulators say there are no environmental reasons to prevent the construction of a multibillion-dollar facility in southern New Mexico to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the nation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental review of the project Wednesday. A safety review is still pending. New Jersey-based Holtec International is seeking a license from the commission to build and operate the facility. Top elected officials in New Mexico oppose the project over concerns that the state is becoming a sacrifice zone for the nation's nuclear waste. Officials in neighboring Texas are fighting a similar effort there.

There are no environmental reasons that would prevent a New Jersey-based company from building a multibillion-dollar facility in southern New Mexico to temporarily store tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the nation, U.S. regulators said Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental review of the project, marking a key step forward as Holtec International pursues a license to build and operate the facility. A safety review is still pending.

New Mexico's governor and members of the state's congressional delegation have been vocal opponents of the project, arguing that the state stands to become a sacrifice zone if more nuclear waste is shipped in from elsewhere. They have raised concerns about the failure of the federal government to identify a permanent solution for dealing with the radioactive material that has been stacking up at nuclear power plants.

The commission already granted a license for a similar storage facility in West Texas, but top officials in that state continue to fight the effort in court and through possible legislative means.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced legislation earlier this year to prohibit federal funds from being used to carry out any activities at private interim storage sites.

Heinrich said Wednesday that New Mexicans didn't sign up for this type of interim storage in their backyards.

"This decision from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reinforces why we need to find a permanent repository and the importance of consent-based siting. Private facilities shouldn't be railroading states," he said.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a statement accused the commission of "choosing profit over public interest." She also called on the state Legislature to deliver a proposal that would protect New Mexico from becoming the de facto home of the country's spent nuclear fuel.

The facility in New Mexico initially would store up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over six decades.

Local officials from adjacent communities have praised the project for its potential to bring jobs and boost economic development in a region that already is home to one of the world's most productive oil and gas deposits, the U.S. government's only underground nuclear dump for defense-related waste and a uranium enrichment plant.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway and Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said in a joint statement issued by Holtec that the commission's environmental review verified the safety of the project.

Holtec CEO Kris Singh said the storage facility will have no impact on the local oil, gas or potash mining operations or the lives of local farmers and ranchers.

"We believe that aggregating used fuel from 75 dispersed sites across the country is both a national security imperative and an essential predicate for the rise of renascent nuclear energy to meet our nation's clean energy goals," Singh said.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has pointed to nuclear power as essential to achieving its goals to create a carbon-freeelectricitysector by2035.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there's nowhere else to put it. The federal government is paying to house the fuel, and the cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.

Federal regulators in September granted a license for an interim storage facility in Andrews County, Texas. That facility is licensed to take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and more than 231 metric tons of other radioactive waste. Possible expansion could increase the total capacity to 40,000 metric tons of fuel, but additional regulatory approval would be needed.

After regulators approved that site, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted: "Texas will not become America's nuclear waste dumping ground."

In its federal appeals court challenge, Texas is arguing now that the NRC didn't have authority to issue the license since Congress didn't intend to grant such power to the commission.

Texas is pointing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming. Though the decision was specific to the EPA, it was in line with the majority's skepticism of the power of regulatory agencies.

Rail Runner extends reduced fare, and adds more trains Dan Boyd, The Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

With gas prices still taking a toll on working New Mexicans, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday that the Rail Runner's 75% fare reduction will be extended through the end of the year.

Gas prices have reduced over the last two weeks, but with the New Mexico average still hovering over 4 dollars a gallon, the state has been seeking ways to expand public transportation options, according to a report from the Albuquerque Journal.

Starting next month, two new midday trains running both north and south, will be added to the weekday and Saturday schedules to help people who need more flexible commuting outside of traditional rush hour times, according to the newspaper.

The prices will remain where they were set in April 2.50 for a day pass and 27.50 for a monthly pass.

The reduction in fares has been estimated to cost the state between $400,000 to $500,000 so far, but people have started taking advantage of the reduced prices.

Ridership more than doubled compared to last year, up to more than 39,000 riders from just over 19,000 last year.

State gives ‘outstanding’ designation to northern NM waters, enhancing pollution rules – By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

The state will soon enact heightened protection against any unauthorized water pollution or other damages across hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in northern New Mexico.

On Tuesday morning, the Water Quality Control Commission, a state water pollution control agency, unanimously passed the designation of Outstanding National Resource Waters for the Upper Pecos watershed as well as segments of Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Lake Fork, East Fork Jemez River, San Antonio Creek and Redondo Creek.

This is the highest level of protection against water degradation the state can give.

These bodies of water will have unique protection against degradation — anything that harms water quality, pollutes, drops heavy metals, increases temperature or clouds water.

Pollution levels that were allowed per state health standards prior to this passage are no longer allowed. And anyone found violating these standards can be fined or taken to court by the state.

These efforts have been years in the making. A petition must be filed with the Water Quality Control Commission for any consideration for waters to be classified and protected as Outstanding National Resource Waters, and petitions for these waters stem back to 2020 and 2021.

Tannis Fox, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, was counsel to the authors for the separate but similar petitions. She said about 180 miles of the Upper Pecos watershed and around 125 miles of other streams and rivers in northern New Mexico will be protected.

One of the petitioners, Director of N.M. Outdoor Recreation Division Axie Navas, said this change could be used to help get more funding to protect watersheds or even as a marketing tool so people know New Mexicans are proud of their waters.

Any time there could be impacts to water quality, such as through restoration, road construction or discharges, organizations must go through the Environment Department or Water Quality Control Commission to get permission, Fox said.

Other human activities that could hurt water quality outlined in the petitions include mining, waste disposal, development and transportation. One of the petitioners, Ralph Vigil, owner of the organic farm Molino de la Isla Organics, said the Upper Pecos watershed has been threatened by mining in the past.

Mining operations in the late 1920s and early ‘30s severely damaged the Upper Pecos watershed, he said, killing fish and contaminating the water.

Now, there’s another proposed exploratory mine near Thompson Peak that wants to extract minerals out of the watershed. This designation will protect against that.

“We had to put some protections so that this doesn’t happen to us again, especially from the mining community,” Vigil said.

Pre-existing uses are allowed to continue, Fox said. Some examples Vigil gave include irrigation and grazing. In addition, the Village of Taos Ski Valley has a wastewater discharge permit in the Rio Hondo but will be allowed to continue that discharge, Fox said.


A body of water can receive the designation if it provides one of any number of benefits, like being a cultural resource, existing within a national or state park or not being significantly altered by human activity.

“These streams represent some of the most ecologically diverse waters in our state, as well as some of the most aesthetically beautiful and recreated on streams in the state,” Fox said. “All of these waters are just majestic.”

The Upper Pecos watershed area is sacred to Pueblos nearby as well as other inhabitants of the area, Vigil said. His family has been in New Mexico for eight generations.

“It’s a special and sacred place to us with our acequia systems and our agricultural practices and our cultural practices,” Vigil said. “So I know there’s a lot of people that this river means a lot to as far as recreation is concerned as well.”

Navas said she was honored to work with all the counties that take pride and ownership in their bodies of water.

“We’re really excited about it because so much of these waters, the portions of these rivers are just enormously significant to individuals who live in these communities, traditional practices, cultural practices and then of course the outdoor recreation companies that make their livelihood from taking people out on adventures on these pristine waters,” Navas said.

There was a significant amount of public support. For the northern New Mexico rivers and streams, Navas said the petition received over 50 resolutions of formal support and over 2,200 public supportive comments. The Upper Pecos watershed petition also had many voices supporting it, including Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján as well as Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez.

N.M. Environment Department spokesperson Matthew Maez wrote via email that “today’s decision brings much needed protections to New Mexico’s most precious resource — our water.”

In the final deliberation stage, Commissioners Larry Dominguez and Bill Brancard brought up concerns about the designation taking effect on private land, and action Colorado could take to protect its side of the Rio Grande and the Village of Taos Ski Valley’s wastewater discharge permit.

Fox said all of these concerns were addressed in the evidence presented to the commission previously and are not issues. Both commissioners voted to pass the petitions.

Navas said now is the time to get the word out about the passage to all of the supporters.

“The quality of water and doing this now is not basically for us. This is for our grandchildren and for our future generations to be able to enjoy in such the same way that we did,” Vigil said. “So it was a very huge victory.”

The state must go through a formal publication process now before the classification becomes official. Maez said this will likely go into effect in September.

AG to review law enforcement actions that led to teen’s death in house fire - By Alice Fordham, KUNM News 

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced yesterday [WED] that his office will review the actions of law enforcement that led to the death of Brett Rosenau on July 6th.

In a statement, his office said that Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina sent a letter to Balderas on July 12th, formally asking him to review, quote, “the recent critical incident”.

Balderas said in the statement that, quote, “The tragic death of this 15-year-old is a serious matter that warrants a comprehensive review, and we have already taken steps to assemble a team to examine the handling of the incident and conduct an analysis of the use of tactical devices.”

Rosenau died after a police SWAT team was involved in a house standoff with 27-year-old Qiaunt Kelley. Officers allegedly threw tear gas canisters and shot chemical munitions before the blaze started. Police said Rosenau had followed Kelley into the house. After the fire was extinguished, Rosenau was found dead.