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THURS: State health officials say more monkeypox vaccines are on order, Navajo Nation declares flooding state of emergency, + More

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New Mexico officials: More monkeypox vaccinations on order - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Only 10 monkeypox cases have been confirmed in New Mexico so far, and top health officials said Thursday there were no immediate concerns that the state will see a vaccine shortage any time soon.

Officials with the state Department of Health reported during a briefing that all of the confirmed cases involve people who contracted the virus outside of New Mexico, indicating there has not yet been community spread. The update came as the U.S. government was poised to declare a public health emergency to bolster the federal response to the rising number of cases elsewhere around the country.

New Mexico Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase called monkeypox "the new infectious disease on the block," saying the state is taking it seriously despite the low number of cases.

New Mexico has nearly 1,000 vaccinations on hand and another 2,600 will be delivered over the coming months. Vaccinations are available by appointment only after health officials confirm that a person is at high risk by coming in contact with someone who was infected.

Each case is investigated, with contract tracing and risk exposure assessments part of the process.

Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Laura Parajón said about 250 vaccines have been administered in New Mexico as of this week.

"We are a little bit ahead of the game because New Mexico is a smaller state," she said, noting the sparse population. "And we've got the advantage of seeing that other states already started getting cases and we then were able to prepare for this eventuality."

The monkeypox virus spreads through prolonged and close skin-to-skin contact, including hugging, cuddling and kissing, as well as sharing bedding, towels and clothing. Symptoms can include fever, body aches, chills, fatigue and pimple-like bumps on many parts of the body.

Meanwhile, New Mexico health officials said COVID-19 cases in the state have plateaued, with the latest variant resulting in less severe illness and fewer hospitalizations. For example, less than 4% of those currently hospitalized require a ventilator — down significantly from the more than 20% early in the pandemic.

Acknowledging that New Mexico has a large percentage of people 65 and older and ranks high for other social vulnerabilities like poverty and lack of access to health care, Scrase said the state continues to closely monitor how the pandemic is affecting the health care delivery system. Right now, he said hospitals are in a much better position when it comes to having beds available for patients.

Compressor explodes in New Mexico grocery store; 2 injured - Associated Press

Two employees of an Albuquerque grocery store have been injured after a compressor exploded, authorities said Thursday.

City fire officials said two heating, ventilation and air conditioning specialists were working on the store's HVAC system Thursday morning and it was unclear why the compressor exploded.

Officials said the two employees were taken to a hospital for treatment of burns and blast injuries.

Their names and medical conditions weren't immediately released.

Fire officials said no toxic gas was released into the air from the explosion.

Navajo Nation declares state of emergency due to flooding - Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials declared a state of emergency Thursday due to increased flooding from recent monsoon rains.

The declaration by the tribe's Commission on Emergency Management will allow local chapters to access additional resources to help mitigate the impacts of heavy rainfall.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the tribe's emergency response personnel have been out in the communities every day helping people recover from recent flooding.

"Yes there are many challenges and not enough personnel to get to every site immediately, but they are making progress," Nez said. "The Navajo Division of Transportation also continues to work on repairs to roads that were damaged.

"We recommend all Navajo households, communities and organizations be prepared as we continue to see scattered thunderstorms throughout the Navajo Nation this week," Nez added. "As we move forward into the fall and winter seasons, we need everyone to be proactive and plan ahead for more severe weather."

Nez said tribal health workers have been going to various communities providing support and assistance for elderly residents and those with health conditions.

A flood watch remains in effect throughout this week on the tribe's vast reservation that covers parts of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.

New state law to reduce oil and gas emissions in counties with high ozone levels takes effect - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

A new state Environment Department rule with the potential to significantly decrease dangerous air pollution from the oil and gas industry goes into effect Friday.

The Environmental Improvement Board adopted the Ozone Precursor Rule in April. It aims to lessen emission of the pollutants that create ozone — nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — by 260 million pounds per year. Ozone at the ground level is the primary ingredient in smog,according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Environment Department says the rule also has a “co-benefit” of reducing methane by more than 851 million pounds annually.

As of Friday, new and existing oil and gas operators must keep records of how they’re complying with the rule, which requires tracking rates of emission and getting those numbers certified. Each month, they’ll also need to check for leaks and patch them within 15 days.

The new law applies to the most ozone-polluted counties, including Chaves, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan, and Valencia.

The Environment Department says the rule supports environmental justice by protecting the state’s “most vulnerable populations” from health impacts, as residents of the targeted counties are disproportionately Hispanic and living in poverty.

In a news release, Secretary James Kenney said the department will begin enforcing the rule shortly after it’s implemented, and that companies at this point should audit their operations and disclose whether they’re violating any of the new requirements.

Prosecutors await forensic analysis in Alec Baldwin shooting - Associated Press

The investigation into the fatal film-set shooting of a cinematographer by actor Alec Baldwin is ongoing, and the New Mexico prosecutor overseeing the case says authorities are awaiting the analysis of key forensic evidence before a decision can be made about whether criminal charges will be filed.

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies provided the update in a social media post Wednesday, saying her office has received only portions of the investigation from the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office.

Still outstanding is forensic analysis of the weapon, a review of data from Baldwin's cell phone and more from the FBI and state medical examiners.

The screening process by prosecutors will begin once sheriff's investigators receive the information and complete their supplemental reports. To expedite the process, Carmack-Altwies has retained a special prosecutor — retired Ninth Judicial District Attorney Andrea Reeb from eastern New Mexico, who has more than two decades of experience.

"To remain transparent to the local and national community, the (district attorney's office) will proactively disseminate information as it becomes available," Carmack-Altwies said.

A live round of ammunition killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza during rehearsal on Oct. 21, 2021. Filming for the Western "Rust" took place at a ranch on the outskirts of the city of Santa Fe.

In records released so far, investigators described complacency, disorganization and neglected safety measures in the making of the low-budget movie.

The videos released by investigators show a debriefing with Baldwin hours after the fatal shooting and rehearsal clips that show Baldwin in costume as he practiced a quick-draw maneuver with a gun.

Baldwin had told investigators that as the gun went off, he was unaware initially that Hutchins would die and was shocked to learn that he had been holding a gun loaded with live ammunition. Baldwin, who also was a producer on the film, had said the gun should have been empty for a rehearsal with no filming.

In April, New Mexico's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau delivered a scathing narrative of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols. It included testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two previous misfires on the set, complaints from crew members that went unheeded, and reports that weapons specialists were not allowed to make decisions about additional safety training.

Rust Movie Productions is disputing the findings and the sanction.

Justice Department details threats against election workers — Marina Villeneuve, Associated Press

The U.S. Justice Department has charged five people for making threats of violence against election workers amid a rising wave of harassment and intimidation tied to the 2020 presidential election, a top official told U.S. senators Wednesday.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said one charge has led to a conviction so far through a task force launched last year as reports of threats to election officials, workers and volunteers raised concerns about safety and the security of future elections.

Overall, the department has investigated more than 1,000 harassing and threatening messages directed at election workers. Roughly 100 of those have risen to the level of potential prosecution. Polite estimated at least three more people have been charged for such threats at the state level.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that those numbers likely do not account for countless more incidents nationwide, including election workers accosted on the street, that are not referred to federal prosecutors.

"We have thousands and thousands of election workers all throughout our country, and yes there has been a rise in all kinds of threats," Hirono said. "So the thousand referrals sounds like a very small number."

Polite said the department has tried to encourage election staff to come forward with any kind of harassing or offensive communication. As an example of one case, he detailed the charge against a Texas man who threatened to kill government officials in Georgia after the 2020 election.

"He said he was threatening to end the lives of these traitors and take back our country by force, threatened to exterminate these people, and he threatened to put a bullet behind their ears," Polite said.

Polite said prosecutors have had to balance safeguarding free speech rights with the onslaught of troubling phone calls, emails and social media posts targeting election workers. The intimidation efforts have especially targeted election officials in the battleground states where Donald Trump contested his loss to President Joe Biden.

Michigan's secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, recalled for committee when dozens of protesters were outside her own home in December 2020, shouting "obscenities and graphic threats."

"As a result, there is an omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our daily lives and those of our families," said Benson, a Democrat.

She said too many election officials feel unsafe and fear for the safety of their colleagues and the security of future elections. State lawmakers have failed to set aside enough money for election security, she said.

"We are threatened with arrest for simply doing our jobs, for educating citizens about the right to vote. Or we are inundated with burdensome and often nonsensical, unnecessary demands for information and access to secure election equipment," Benson said.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who has had talks with Democrats about potential voting legislation, asked Polite if he supports increased penalties for people found guilty of threats against election workers. Tillis noted that he has received two voicemails in recent days from a man who threatened to kill him.

"Any leverage that we can gain in terms of increasing the potential deterrence value of charges of enforcement actions here is absolutely critical," Polite said.

A bipartisan bill in the Senate would double the federal penalties to up to two years in prison for those who threaten election workers, poll watchers, voters or candidates.

"Legal action is the last line of defense," said New Mexico's secretary of state, Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who spoke about receiving death threats during the 2020 election that forced her leave her home. "We will not stop such threats until the lies stop, the rhetoric gets racheted down and elected officials, the media, political parties and others find better ways to come together and educate the public about the realities of how elections are conducted."

New Mexico plans to create searchable logs of prison mail — Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Letters written and received by people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons will soon be part of a database expanding mail surveillance in the state’s correctional facilities.

The New Mexico Corrections Department is buying equipment from Florida-based company Securus Technologies and installing it at each prison.

Adult Prisons Division Director Gary Marciel told legislators the computer software will monitor the mail coming in, scanning every letter for certain words or names to help build a searchable log of the communication incarcerated people have with people outside.

Prison guards already monitor mail sent to incarcerated people but the new technology would make it easier for them to investigate alleged gang activity.

Some state lawmakers questioned the costs of hiring a private tech surveillance company to create a history of mail communication, and the need for the Corrections Department’s recent ban on personal mail for people inside state prisons.

Since Feb. 1, personal mail to any New Mexico prison must be sent to Securus in Florida. Any mail sent directly to the prison is returned back to the sender unopened. Medical, legal and other confidential mail still goes directly to incarcerated people.

Even though state prison officials said the new policy was meant to prevent drugs from getting inside, it has not had any effect on drug use, according to legislative analysts. Advocates and some lawmakers say what it really does is isolate and exercise power over incarcerated people, and that it has the effect of violating their privacy and harming their mental well-being.

The policy also has direct costs to the state budget. NM Corrections Department officials previously said at the beginning of every month Securus will charge the state $3.50 for each incarcerated person in the state’s prisons.

As of Tuesday, there were 5,508 held in New Mexico prisons, according to the department.

If the prison population has stayed the same since the department hired Securus, then the state has paid the company an estimated $154,000 so far processing mail.

“It’s troubling from a taxpayer money perspective,” Rep. Antonio Maestas (D-Albuquerque) said in an interview.

The prison industrial complex is a profitable industry, he said, and their business is an expense to taxpayers in two ways, “One is you’re not promoting public safety, and two, you’re spending tax dollars willy nilly.”

In-person visitation, mail, phone calls, and other ways that incarcerated people stay in touch with their families have positive effects on health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school, according to decades of empirical research.

“They sell wonderful things to the prisons to modernize the prisons,” Maestas said. “It then becomes the norm, it becomes the budget, and it just stays there.”

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) is a co-chair of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. She said during a committee meeting on July 27 she is also worried about the fact that there are so many ways to make money off of incarcerated people.

“I want to know more about this whole mail issue because it seems so draconian to suddenly find that inmates could no longer get drawings from their kids,” Chasey said. “I’m sure this isn’t a public service by the Florida company, and I would like to know more in the future about exactly how this plays out.”

She wanted to know, prior to the mail policy change, what the risk was to staff or incarcerated people, and whether this is the only way to address that risk.

“Is there another way that’s maybe even more cost effective that might be more humane, in terms of contact with families at home?” she asked. “Is there some other kind of screening that could be done locally that would prevent the need for that?”

Chasey also asked Legislative Finance Committee Senior Fiscal Analyst Ellen Rabin if the LFC knows how much the Corrections Department spent on the mail program. Rabin said she has only been able to find one purchase order so far.

“It didn’t seem like that was enough to account for the entire term of the contract,” Rabin said. “So it’s something I’ll continue to look into.”

As of Tuesday, the company had not billed the state for the new technology, the department spokesperson said.

Maciel did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking follow-up comment for this story.


New Mexico prison officials already have “a special team” whose job is to “flag certain inmates to know that, ‘Hey, let’s check all of this person’s mail,’” Marciel told the committee.

That team is called the Security Threat Intelligence Unit, a Corrections spokesperson confirmed on Monday. Their mission is “the identification, monitoring, and management” of incarcerated people and people on parole who are believed to be members of gangs. The spokesperson declined to comment on how many people are assigned to the unit or in which prisons they work.

The prison staff in this team, Marciel said, work with confidential informants or just go through the mail “hoping to catch something.”

The technology is called Digital Mail Center and was created by a Securus subsidiary company called Guarded Exchange, a spokesperson for the department said Tuesday. The company is figuring out what equipment will be needed to handle the mail in each state prison in New Mexico, the department spokesperson said.

Marciel said the new system would get mail to people faster and make the monitoring happen more quickly “because then we can go back and look at like, say we hear about something later, we can go back and look in the letter that someone got, you know, last week or two weeks ago, or something like that.”

The software “can flag certain letters, or certain inmates that we know are involved in certain things,” Marciel said.

“Obviously, there’s thousands of pieces of mail that come through, so a lot of it would make it through with this new software, if it works as intended,” Marciel said. “It’s a whole like, computer software program that is actually very high tech and very advanced.”

Election skeptics rise in GOP races to run state elections — Bob Christie, Christina A. Cassidy, Associated Press

The Trump-endorsed state lawmaker who won the GOP nomination for Arizona secretary of state is the latest candidate to advance to the November ballot for a post overseeing state elections while denying the results of the last one.

The early success of such candidates is raising concerns about what happens if those who lack faith in elections are put in charge of running them.

State Rep. Mark Finchem easily cleared a crowded field in Tuesday's Arizona primary. He has embraced former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and has promised to upend election administration in the politically pivotal state if elected.

"The focus of the election is going to be on restoring the rule of law. It's that simple," Finchem said in an interview Wednesday. "Right now, we have lawlessness."

Finchem, who earned an early endorsement from Trump, was among those seeking to have the Legislature overturn Democrat Joe Biden's win in Arizona. He joins Republican nominees for secretary of state in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico and the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania in supporting Trump's false claims. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state.

Election experts say candidates who dispute the results of a valid election in which there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting systems pose a danger of interfering in future elections. They warn it could trigger chaos if they refuse to accept results they don't like.

"They only have faith in elections when their side wins. Their definition of a secure election is only when they or their party wins," said David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who now leads the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. "That is not a democracy."

Not all such candidates this year have been successful. Most notably, Rep. Jody Hice lost his bid to oust Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the state's primary. Raffensperger had drawn the ire of Trump after refusing the former president's demand in a phone call to "find" enough votes to overturn Biden's win in the state.

Most of the seven incumbent Republican secretaries facing primary challengers this year have advanced to the November election. That includes Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who on Tuesday defeated a challenger who promoted election conspiracy theories.

Only Indiana's Holli Sullivan and South Dakota's Steve Barnett have lost their bids to stay in office. A handful of primaries remain over the next several weeks.

Historically, races for secretary of state have been low-key contests overshadowed by campaigns for governor and state attorney general. But they have drawn enormous interest since the 2020 election, when voting systems and processes came under attack by Trump and his supporters.

Secretaries of state don't make laws, but they work closely with local election officials in their states. Responsibilities vary, but they typically issue guidance on voting procedures to ensure uniformity, dole out funding to local election officials and coordinate with federal officials on election security.

Experts say a secretary of state who believes the 2020 election was stolen could seek changes to how elections are run. For instance, those who think mail voting is vulnerable to fraud could add new requirements for mail ballot requests, reduce access to drop boxes or eliminate lists of permanent absentee voters.

In Arizona, the secretary of state writes a manual with the force of law that lays out election rules. The manual must be based on state law and approved by the attorney general and governor, but has been the subject of controversy this year after the Republican attorney general sought to block a new version written by the Democratic secretary of state.

The 2019 version with some changes was allowed to remain in force instead of the new one, and Finchem vows to completely scrap that version.

"If they have the keys to the castle, so to speak, will they properly set rules, count votes and defend the will of the people?" said David Levine, a former election official who is now a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

In Nevada, the Republican nominee, Jim Marchant, wants all voting equipment tossed out in favor of hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots. He argues voting machines can't be trusted and has told voters: "You haven't elected anybody. The people that are in office have been selected. You haven't had a choice."

In Arizona, Finchem is part of a lawsuit seeking to compel election officials in the state to hand-count ballots cast in the November election. A federal judge is considering whether to dismiss it.

There is no evidence that voting machines have been manipulated. A coalition of federal and state election and cybersecurity officials called the 2020 presidential election "the most secure in American history" and Trump's own attorney general has said there was no fraud that would have altered the results.

Experts say hand-counting of ballots is not only less accurate but extremely labor-intensive, potentially delaying results by weeks. They also say it's unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and tallied correctly.

Besides noting election administration, Levine said there are questions about what a secretary of state who embraces conspiracy theories might do if their party's candidate lost an election and claimed fraud.

"We need to make sure that we are putting people in these positions who put free and fair elections above partisan interest," he said.

Finchem confirmed Wednesday that he has received a subpoena from the Justice Department seeking documents related to his activities surrounding the 2020 election. He dismissed claims that he or other candidates like him might be a danger to democracy.

"That's hyperbolic at its best," Finchem said. "At its worst, it's just fear-mongering."

Although secretaries of state are important positions, they do not have unlimited power, said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for expanded voter access.

"Even in states where the secretary of state has an enormous amount of power, a secretary of state cannot — by themselves — overturn a democratic election," Albert said. "Even where these individuals may want to take actions to undermine the ability for voters to vote and have a ballot count, they are still limited by the law and checks and balances in place."


Cassidy reported from Washington.

Vegas-based rental firm faces probes over pandemic evictions — Ken Ritter, Associated Press

A Las Vegas-based corporate owner of thousands of residential rental properties in several U.S. states is facing investigations about whether it improperly evicted tenants during the coronavirus pandemic, while it received millions of federal dollars aimed at keeping people in their homes.

Probes of The Siegel Group announced by Nevada state Attorney General Aaron Ford's office and Clark County officials followed findings by a congressional oversight panel that company executives used "potentially unlawful" tactics last year to force tenants out.

"Siegel's pandemic eviction practices were uniquely egregious," the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said in its 41-page report. It said documents showed "harassment tactics and potentially unlawful lockouts to push tenants out of their homes without filing formal eviction actions."

"Siegel received at least $5.5 million in federal assistance to offset pandemic costs and tenant rental arrears as it flouted tenant protections," the report said.

Sean Thueson, Siegel Group executive vice president and general counsel, provided a company statement Wednesday saying Siegel was not "called or interviewed" for the House committee report.

"The Siegel Group has and always will try to run the most dignified rental housing business we can," the statement said, adding that the company "has at all times been committed to abiding by the letter and the spirit of the law applicable to our operations."

The congressional panel looked at evictions filed through July 2021 by subsidiaries of The Siegel Group and three other companies: Ventron Management, with apartments in Georgia, Florida and Alabama; Pretium Partners, corporate parent of Progress Residential and Front Yard Residential with rental homes in 24 states; and Invitation Homes, a publicly traded company with single-family rental houses in 11 states.

It said Siegel executives advised subordinates to "bluff" tenants out of their apartments by confusing them about protections they had under a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium — including posting copies of a court order suggesting the CDC eviction moratorium was no longer in effect.

A national eviction moratorium enacted in September 2020 by the CDC was lifted in August 2021 after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In another case, the House panel said, a Siegel executive sent to employees in Texas a list of strategies to "'get rid of' a 'past due' tenant without obtaining an eviction order from a court," the congressional panel found.

Instructions included replacing the tenant's air conditioning unit with one that didn't work, asking state child welfare officials to investigate the tenant, and having security knock on her door "at least twice at night," the report said.

Ford, the Nevada attorney general, characterized the report as "shocking and disturbing."

"Evicting people from their homes during one of the most disastrous public health crises in our nation's history is not only irresponsible, but offensive," he said in a statement.

A Nevada eviction moratorium was first enacted in March 2020 amid business closures due to the pandemic by Gov. Steve Sisolak. The state moratorium was extended several times and ended in May 2021. Ford and Sisolak are Democrats.

Ford said the state "worked with tenants and landlords, including Siegel Suites, to ensure compliance with the directive."

County officials want to review rental assistance provided to Siegel Suites and Siegel Select hotel-apartment units in and around Las Vegas, and "remedy any wrongs," Dan Kulin, a county spokesman, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday.

Kulin did not immediately respond Wednesday to messages from The Associated Press.

Siegel Suites rents apartments beginning at $169 a week in states also including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. It markets rentals as "flexible-stay" because it does not require a long-term lease.

The congressional panel noted the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau "warned against deceptive and unfair business practices" during the pandemic, but said it "is not clear that enforcement actions were prompt enough to deter such behavior from causing tenants to lose their homes."

US doles out relief dollars to build employment pipelines — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

With the highest unemployment rate in the nation, New Mexico is banking on a tiny infusion of federal relief money through the American Rescue Plan to boost the job market in a poverty-stricken corner of the state and in some cases provide a second chance to would-be workers with a criminal record or those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.

Top federal officials announced the job funding Wednesday, saying a total of $500 million was being doled out for programs in more than 30 states and in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Economic Development Administration received more than 500 applications requesting more than $6.5 billion, or about 13 times more than the available funding.

New Mexico will share in just a fraction of that to develop a partnership among community colleges, hospitals, construction firms and unions with the goal of building an employment pipeline in the northern part of the state.

Led by the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, part of the effort will include deploying a mobile classroom to provide training and apprenticeships in the construction industry for hard-to-reach populations.

As for health care, Santa Fe Community College will work with hospitals and recovery centers in Santa Fe, Espanola and Taos to create a program similar to one in Arizona that has for the past decade streamlined student pathways into clinical on-the-job training.

The funding comes amid raging inflation and rising interest rates in a state where joblessness continues to outpace the national average as employers struggle to find willing workers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday also noted the shortfall of health care professionals in the state — a long struggle that was exacerbated in early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

She suggested the jobs funding would be "transformative."

"This is a state that has really struggled based on the rural nature of our populations and the fact that we are a sparsely populated state," she said. "Really growing and diversifying our economy so that it meets the needs of those families and workers where they are has been a challenge for decades."

Nationwide, employers posted fewer job openings in June and companies have complained that it is hard to fill open positions.

In New Mexico, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.9% in June. While that's down from 7.3% a year ago, it's still higher than the national average and the highest among other states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves told reporters Wednesday that the grants are aimed at critical industries that range from health care to energy production, manufacturing and wildfire prevention.

In California, for example, the Foundation for California Community Colleges has been awarded more than $21 million to develop statewide infrastructure for training in forest health and fire safety. Federal officials said the emerging sector has the potential to grow into a $39 billion industry, but there are shortages of fire and forestry crew leaders, scientists and others.

The grant program will last for three years and officials in New Mexico expect about 1,100 workers to be placed in jobs. However, how the programs will be bankrolled after that is uncertain.

Monica Abeita with the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District said she's hopeful that success will lead to private investments that can keep the programs running.

Abeita outlined some of the challenges facing northern New Mexico, including poverty and generational substance abuse. She also said the economy is based largely on tourism, which means low paying, seasonal jobs that don't provide a career ladder beyond the service sector.

Another target for prospective participants is the 3,000 people who graduate from recovery centers annually in northern New Mexico. By getting them lined up for a job before graduation, state officials said that will give them a goal to work for and hopefully reduce recidivism.

Abeita said officials also are working with local employers to get over the hurdle of hiring those who have been incarcerated or have had substance abuse problems.

"We feel like everyone in the region is committed to this," she said. "We know that if we don't change this dynamic and make a fundamental change to some of these structural problems, our region can't move forward."

EPA announces flights to look for methane in Permian Basin — Michael Biesecker, Helen Wieffering, Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency says it will conduct helicopter overflights to look for methane "super emitters" in the nation's largest oil and gas producing region.

EPA's Rgion 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, issued a news release about a new enforcement effort in the Permian Basin on Monday, saying the flights would occur within the next two weeks.

The announcement came four days after The Associated Press published an investigation that showed 533 oil and gas facilities in the region are emitting excessive amounts of methane and named the companies most responsible. Colorless and odorless, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps 83 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 20 year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said the timing of the agency's announcement was not related to AP's story and that similar overflights had been conducted in years past. EPA officials made no mention of an upcoming enforcement sweep in the Permian when interviewed by AP last month.

EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said the Permian Basin accounts for 40 percent of our nation's oil supply and for years has released dangerous quantities methane and volatile organic compounds, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.

"The flyovers are vital to identifying which facilities are responsible for the bulk of these emissions and therefore where reductions are most urgently needed," Nance said, according to the agency's media release.

AP used 2021 data from the group Carbon Mapper to document massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea.

A partnership of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used an airplane carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown persistently spewing the gas across multiple overflights.

Last October, AP journalists visited more than two dozen sites flagged as persistent methane super emitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other production infrastructure. The Carbon Mapper data and the AP's camera work show many of the worst emitters are steadily charging the Earth's atmosphere with this extra gas.

Carbon Mapper identified the spewing sites only by their GPS coordinates. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 "super-emitting" sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the corporations most likely responsible.

Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper's data.

AP also compared the estimated rates at which the super emitting sites were observed gushing methane with the annual reports the companies are required to submit to EPA detailing their greenhouse gas emissions. AP found the EPA's database often fails to account for the true rate of emissions observed in the Permian.

The methane released by these companies will be disrupting the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There's now nearly three times as much methane in the air than there was before industrial times. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever.

EPA recently enacted restrictions on how much methane can be released from new oil and gas facilities. But proposed regulations on the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for the bulk of emissions are still under review. What are restricted under current federal regulations are toxic air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and cancer-causing benzene that often accompany methane and are sometimes called "ridealong" gases.

EPA said this week it too would collect data from its airborne observations in the Permian and use the GPS locations to identify the facilities releasing excess emissions. The agency said it will initiate enforcement actions against the companies responsible that could include administrative enforcement actions and referrals to the Justice Department. EPA said companies found to be violating federal law could face significant financial penalties as well as future monitoring to verify corrective action was taken.


Follow AP investigative reporters Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck and Helen Wieffering at twitter.com/helenwieffering. To contact AP's investigations team, email investigative@ap.org.