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SUN: Navajo Code Talker's death leaves just 3 from group, New mail policy for New Mexico prison raises questions, + More

In this 2013 photo, Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval talks about his experiences in the military. Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers who transmitted messages in World War II using a code based on their native language, has died at age 98.
Sam Green
In this 2013 photo, Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval talks about his experiences in the military. Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers who transmitted messages in World War II using a code based on their native language, has died at age 98.

Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval dies; 3 left from groupBy Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Samuel Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers who transmitted messages in World War II using a code based on their native language, has died.

Sandoval died late Friday at a hospital in Shiprock, New Mexico, his wife, Malula told The Associated Press on Saturday. He was 98.

Hundreds of Navajos were recruited from the vast Navajo Nation to serve as Code Talkers with the U.S. Marine Corps. Only three are still alive today: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsel Sr. and Thomas H. Begay.

The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific, sending thousands of messages without error on Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and other communications critical to the war's ultimate outcome. The code, based on the then-unwritten Navajo language, confounded Japanese military cryptologists and is credited with helping the U.S. win the war.

Samuel Sandoval was on Okinawa when got word from another Navajo Code Talker that the Japanese had surrendered and relayed the message to higher-ups. He had a close call on the island, which brought back painful memories that he kept to himself, Malula Sandoval said.

The Navajo men are celebrated annually on Aug. 14. Samuel Sandoval was looking forward to that date and seeing a museum built near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock to honor the Code Talkers, she said.

"Sam always said, 'I wanted my Navajo youngsters to learn, they need to know what we did and how this code was used and how it contributed to the world,'" she said Saturday. "That the Navajo language was powerful and always to continue carrying our legacy."

Sandoval was born in Nageezi near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after attending a Methodist school where he was discouraged from speaking Navajo. He helped recruit other Navajos from the school to serve as Code Talkers, expanding on words and an alphabet that an original group of 29 Navajos created.

Sandoval served in five combat tours and was honorably discharged in 1946. The Code Talkers had orders not to discuss their roles — not during the war and not until their mission was declassified in 1968.

The roles later became an immense source of pride for Sandoval and his late brother, Merrill Sandoval, who also was a Code Talker. The two became talented speakers who always hailed their fellow Marines still in action as the heroes, not themselves, said Merrill Sandoval's daughter, Jeannie Sandoval.

"We were kids, all growing up and we started to hear about the stories," she said. "We were so proud of them, and there weren't very many brothers together."

Sandoval was curious, always reading the local newspapers, and attending community, veterans, Code Talker and legislative meetings. He enjoyed traveling and sharing what he learned, grounded in his Diné beliefs and the Navajo way of life, said one of his daughters, Karen John.

"It was engrained early in me, to be part of the community," she said. "He was really involved in a lot, some of which I couldn't comprehend as a kid."

Samuel Sandoval often told his story, chronicled in a book and documentary of the same name — "Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrier" — at the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado. He had a favorite folding chair there with vinyl padding and took coffee black, said executive director Rebecca Levy.

Levy said Sandoval's talks drew dozens of people, some of whom had to be turned away because of space limitations.

"It was a great opportunity for people who understood how important the Navajo Code Talkers were to the outcome of the war, in our favor ... to thank him in person," Levy said.

Sandoval's health had been declining in recent years, including a fall in which he fractured a hip, Malula Sandoval said. His last trip was to New Orleans in June where he received the American Spirit Award from the National World War II Museum, she said. MacDonald, Kinsel and Begay also were honored.

Sandoval and his wife met while he was running a substance abuse counseling clinic, and she was a secretary, she said. They were married 33 years. Sandoval raised 11 children from previous marriages and in blended families, John said.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said Sandoval will be remembered as a loving and courageous person who defended his homeland using his sacred language.

"We are saddened by his passing, but his legacy will always live on in our hearts and minds," Nez said in a statement.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Seth Damon said Sandoval's life was guided by character, courage, honor and integrity, and his impact will forever be remembered.

"May he rest among our most resilient warriors," Damon said in a statement.

Funeral services are pending.

New mail policy for New Mexico prison inmates in questionBy Dan McKay, Albuquerque Journal

Humanitarian concerns are being raised about a new prison policy in New Mexico that provides inmates with photocopies of their personal mail – never the actual mail itself – as part of a plan to limit the flow of drugs into New Mexico prisons.

Initial data doesn't show an immediate impact on the drug positivity rate of inmates.

Legislators worry it might weaken meaningful communication between inmates and families that is key to rehabilitation, including small keepsakes like a child's drawing.

"It seems so draconian to find that inmates could no longer get drawings from their kids," said state Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who presided over a recent hearing concerning the Corrections Department.

Corrections officials have defended the policy as a necessary step to curb drug use and protect the health of people living or working inside state prisons.

They said some inmates had received letters soaked in narcotics — such as fentanyl or synthetic cannabis — and burned them to inhale the smoke.

Starting earlier this year, people who want to mail a letter to a New Mexico inmate must now send it to an address in Florida, where a private company photocopies the material and then mails it back to the state prison system.

It costs the state about $3.50 per inmate each month, regardless of whether the inmate receives any mail, for the Securus mail system. The cost could reach somewhere in the neighborhood of $160,000 a year, depending on the number of inmates in the system.

The change also restricts what kind of mail inmates may receive, with greeting cards, for example, no longer accepted, according to legislative records.

Wence Asonganyi, health services administrator for the Corrections Department, said the mail changes came after prison leaders determined they had to act amid a rise in symptoms among inmates consistent with a drug overdose.

"It is quite disturbing when on a weekly basis you get numbers of suspected overdoses within the prison system across the state, and all you have is a plan is to take them to a hospital or provide first aid," Asonganyi said. "You know that's not sustainable. You know that's not good care."

He said the Corrections Department had seen a substantial drop in medical incidents related to drug use following enactment of the new mail policy.

Legislative analysts offered a different assessment. They said the positivity rate from random drug tests of inmates hadn't shown an immediate improvement, according to quarterly reports issued by the department.

Asonganyi contends the drug positivity rate isn't the right way to measure the program's success because some of the drugs have been altered in a way that makes them hard to identify in a normal drug screening.

Legislative analysts, in turn, suggested the Corrections Department propose a better way to measure the program's success, if they have more meaningful data.

The legislators at the recent hearing said they will further scrutinize the policy.

Chasey, who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said New Mexico's revenue boom should allow for new investments to improve the prison system. She suggested there might be another safe, cost-effective way to screen the mail.

"I certainly don't want to put staff at risk, and I don't want inmates at risk," Chasey said. "We'd like to try to help."

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, asked whether the out-of-state photocopying of mail was authorized by state law. Corrections officials said the law is silent on the issue.

Diana Crowson, whose son is an inmate at the state prison in Santa Fe, said the new policy has disrupted mail service to inmates. Keeping in touch with family, she said, is an important way to reduce recidivism for people released from custody.

"Not only the inmates," Crowson said, "but the families are suffering from this."

California not counting methane leaks from idle wellsBy Drew Costley, Associated Press

California claims to know how much climate-warming gas is going into the air from within its borders. It's the law: California limits climate pollution and each year the limits get stricter.

The state has also been a major oil and gas producer for more than a century, and authorities are well aware some 35,000 old, inactive oil and gas wells perforate the landscape.

Yet officials with the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they don't include methane that leaks from these idle wells in their inventory of the state's emissions.

Ira Leifer, a University of California Santa Barbara scientist said the lack of data on emissions pouring or seeping out of idle wells calls into question the state's ability to meet its ambitious goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

Residents and environmentalists from across the state have been voicing concern about the possibility of leaking idle or abandoned wells for years, but the concerns were heightened in May and June when 21 idle wells were discovered to be leaking methane in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say that the leaking wells are "an urgent public health issue," because when a well is leaking methane, other gases often escape too.

Leifer said these "ridealong" gases were his biggest concern with the wells.

"Those other gases have significant health impacts," Leifer said, yet we know even less about their quantities than we do about the methane.

In July, residents who live in the communities nearest the leaking wells protested at the California Geologic Management Division's field offices, calling for better oversight.

"It's clear that they are willing to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are done waiting. CalGEM needs to do their job," Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said in a statement.

Robert Howarth, a Cornell University methane researcher, agreed with Leifer that the amount of methane emissions from leaking wells isn't well known and that it's not a major source of emissions when compared with methane emissions from across the oil and gas industry.

Still, he said, "it's adding something very clearly, and we shouldn't be allowing it to happen."

A ton of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a ton of carbon dioxide, when compared over twenty years.

A 2020 study said emissions from idle wells are "more substantial" than from plugged wells in California, but recommended more data collection on inactive wells at the major oil and gas fields throughout the state.

Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author on that study, said they found high emissions from some of the idle wells they measured in the study.

In order to get a better idea of how much methane is leaking, the state of California is investing in projects on the ground and in the air. David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB, said the agency is beginning a project to measure emissions from a sample of properly and improperly abandoned wells to estimate statewide emissions from them.

And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes participation in a global effort to slash emissions called the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million to use satellites to track large methane leaks in order to help the state identify sources of the gas and cap leaks.

Some research has already been done, too, to find out how much methane is coming from oil and gas facilities. A 2019 Nature study found that 26% of state methane emissions is coming from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press found methane is billowing from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas and companies under report it.

Howarth said even if methane from idle oil and gas wells isn't a major pollution source, it should be a priority not just in California, but nationwide, to help the country meet its climate pledges.

"Methane dissipates pretty quickly in the atmosphere," he said, "so cutting the emissions is really one of the simplest ways we have to slow the rate of global warming and meet that Paris target."

A new Senate proposal would provide hundreds of millions dollars to plug wells and reduce pollution from them, especially in hard hit communities.