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SAT: Watchdog groups ridicule US nuclear lab review, Roosevelt County women killed by neighbor's pickup, + More

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Los Alamos National Laboratory
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Watchdog groups call review at US nuclear lab 'sham' processBy Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. government is planning to review the environmental effects of operations at one of the nation's prominent nuclear weapons laboratories, but its notice issued Friday leaves out federal goals to ramp up production of plutonium cores used in the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said the review — being done to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act — will look at the potential environmental effects of alternatives for operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory for the next 15 years.

That work includes preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons worldwide and other projects related to national security and global stability, the notice said.

Watchdog groups contend that regardless of the review, the NNSA will march ahead with its production plans for plutonium cores at Los Alamos.

The northern New Mexico lab — part of the top secret Manhattan Project during World War II and the birthplace of the atomic bomb — is one of two sites tapped for the lucrative mission of manufacturing the plutonium cores. The other is the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation fought to ensure Los Alamos would be among the benefactors of the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs that will stem from the mission.

The U.S. Energy Department had set deadlines for 2026 and 2030 for ramping up production of the plutonium cores, but it's unclear whether those will be met given the billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements still needed.

Watchdog groups that have been critical of Los Alamos accused the NNSA of going through the motions rather than taking a hard look at the escalating costs of preparing for production, the future consequences to the federal budget and the potential environmental fallout for neighboring communities and Native American tribes.

"This is too little too late, a sham process designed to circumvent citizen enforcement of the National Environmental Policy Act," said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. "The key sentence in NNSA's announcement is that absent any new decisions in the site-wide environmental impact statement, the agency will continue to implement decisions it previously made behind closed doors."

The Los Alamos Study Group, another New Mexico-based organization that monitors lab activities, said there is no indication that NNSA will pause any preparations for the sake of complying with National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates some scrutiny before moving ahead with major federal projects.

The group pointed to more than $19 billion in new construction and operational costs for Los Alamos' new plutonium core production mission through fiscal year 2033. They say the price tag is expected to grow.

According to planning documents related to the sprawling Los Alamos campus, lab officials have indicated that they need more than 4 million square feet (371,612 square meters) of new construction to bolster one of its main technical areas and the area where the lab's plutonium operations are located. Several thousand new staff members also would be needed.

"This is a completely bogus process in which NNSA seeks to create a veneer of legitimacy and public acceptance for its reckless plans," said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group.

The NNSA noted that it conducted in 2020 a supplemental analysis of a 2008 sitewide environmental impact statement focused on infrastructure and capability increases needed for the lab to make 30 plutonium cores per year.

Toni Chiri, a spokeswoman with the NNSA's field office in Los Alamos, said it's time for a new review to cover alternative activities to meet what she described as the "full suite" of the lab's mission.

"NNSA looks forward to engaging the public, governments and other stakeholders and receiving their input on the process and outcome," she said in an email.

People have until Oct. 3 to comment on the scope of the planned review.

Roosevelt County woman, 82, fatally hit by neighbor's pickupAssociated Press

New Mexico State Police say an elderly woman in Roosevelt County has died after she was hit by a vehicle driven by an elderly neighbor.

Authorities say the incident happened Thursday around noon as 82-year-old Virginia Poe was checking her mail at her home outside Portales.

Her 88-year-old neighbor was driving a GMC pickup truck with an empty flatbed trailer attached. Police say he stopped along the road to chat with Poe.

After they finished, the neighbor drove onto Poe's property to make a U-turn.

Investigators say the trailer hit Poe, who was still standing just off the road by her mailbox, as he entered the roadway.

Paramedics transported the woman to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

State Police say alcohol does not appear to be a factor. The investigation remains ongoing.

Bernalillo County approves new Santolina plans despite public objections, water access issues Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Bernalillo County elected officials on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve two sets of plans for the Santolina development, over the objections of community members and the county’s own planning board.

The Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve two requests by Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH) to speed up the development’s timeline from 50 to 30 years, and add a recycling plant to the area planned in the southwest Albuquerque metro.

Commissioner Adriann Barboa used language of the climate justice movement to justify her vote.

“My family, for multiple generations, has come and fought for our water,” Barboa said. “I’m only here because of the access to the acequias and the waters that my grandfather cultivated for our family. I consider myself an environmental justice advocate. I believe water is sacred, and is life.”

The county’s Planning Commission in March voted not to recommend those changes to the full County Commission. It remains unclear where water for the subdivision will come from, because it does not include any request to tap into water reserves, or for water and sewer services from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority (ABCWA).

Outside the commission chambers, protesters with the Contra Santolina Working Group chanted, “No WALH, no sprawl!”

Jorge Garcia, member of the Armijo Ranchos de Atrisco Acequia and executive director of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems, asked commissioners to uphold the planning commission’s denial.

Garcia suggested that the development is a business venture that will change the city’s landscape and compromise the availability of water, and he said approving it would give in to the desires of housing development executives.

“It would be just a benefit to their business adventures,” Garcia testified. “What people are against is the fact that excessive growth for which there is no water compromises the future of our children and our grandchildren, just to satisfy the needs of a small minority of people who stand to benefit from this development.”

Albuquerque resident Mimi Lopez urged the commissioners to adopt the recommendation of the planning commission and testified that the community is facing a critical shortage of water.

New Mexico and the Southwest are experiencing a historic drought, the effects of which are being significantly exacerbated by climate change, she said. The recent dying of the Rio Grande won’t be the last time, Lopez testified. New Mexico uses Colorado River water, and currently has no means of increasing its water supply, she testified.

“Under the current extreme drought conditions, I contend that it is the epitome of foolishness and irresponsibility to do anything to aid and abet a massive, unneeded new development,” Lopez said.

Norm Gaume showed commissioners a chart indicating the cumulative water credits and debits through the Middle Rio Grande owed to the water users below the Elephant Butte Reservoir. Gaume is a retired water engineer, former water resources manager for the city of Albuquerque and former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

Commission staff estimated in July that New Mexico is 40,000 acre feet behind in deliveries made to Elephant Butte Reservoir, according to its director, Rolf Schmidt-Petersen.

“Meaning that we are less than a year, on this current trend, away from a compact violation,” Gaume testified. “I don’t have time to tell you how bad that could be, but it would be really bad for the Middle Valley, and it would be really bad for the state of New Mexico.”

Susan Schuurman, a Bernalillo County resident, urged commissioners to adopt the recommendation by the planning commission to deny Santolina’s plans.

“The bottom line is there’s not enough water for current users, let alone a massive new housing development that population trends indicate is not needed or sustainable,” Schuurman testified. “Approving these plans, in fact, would be environmental racism: taking water away from low-income people of color in the South Valley who have irrigated their fields from acequias for generations, and giving it to out-of-state investors.”

Patrick Jaramillo asked county officials to look outside and consider the future.

“Water is life for us as individuals, water is life for us as a community,” Jaramillo testified. “There is no water, and there will be less — honestly I’m speechless. The fact that this is being considered is beyond reason.”

In his testimony against the project, Jaramillo said there is no water for the development.

“What is our future? It’s gonna blow away,” Jaramillo said. “Our future is gonna blow away in the wind. And if you approve, you will be culpable.”