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THURS: US sweetens pot to study spent nuclear fuel storage as opposition flares in NM, + More

A load of high-activity waste heading for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Wikimedia Commons
A load of high-activity waste heading for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

US sweetens pot to study siting for spent nuke fuel storage - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The U.S. government has long struggled to find a permanent solution for storing or disposing of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, and opposition to such a site is flaring up again as New Mexico lawmakers debate banning a facility without state consent.

The state's prospective ban cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday with approval from a key committee. Supporters acknowledge that the bill has a long road ahead, but it does have the backing of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, the bill's sponsor, said momentum against New Mexico becoming a permanent dumping ground for the nation's nuclear waste — including spent fuel from commercial power plants — is growing and he's cautiously optimistic this is the year that the state takes a legislative stand.

Steinborn said consent should be mandatory and that the federal government should provide states with a significant financial incentive reflecting the risks associated with managing radioactive materials.

New Mexico and neighboring Texas have sued in federal court over two proposed multibillion-dollar interim storage facilities — one in southeastern New Mexico and the other in Andrews County, Texas.

"New Mexico has not been offered anything with this deal," Steinborn said. "And even if we had, I don't think any amount of money would convince me that it's the right thing."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license for a facility in West Texas in 2021, and the agency plans to make a final decision as early as March on whether to grant a license for the planned storage complex in New Mexico. The two sites would be about 40 miles apart.

Environmental and nuclear watchdog groups have filed their own lawsuits, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Wednesday dismissed all objections opposing the Texas project.

Federal appellate courts elsewhere have yet to rule on the state of Texas' claims, which focus on whether federal nuclear regulators have authority to license such a facility, or on New Mexico's claims that regulators did not do enough to vet plans by Holtec International.

The New Jersey-based company is seeking a 40-year license to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad, which already is home to the federal government's only underground repository for Cold War-era waste generated by decades of nuclear research and bomb-making.

Ed Mayer, program director of the planned facility, told state lawmakers during a hearing earlier this week that Holtec has an unblemished safety record and the probability of a severe accident happening while the spent fuel is transported via train from sites around the U.S. would be 1 in 10 trillion. Even then, he said, no radiological material would be released because the casks holding the fuel are robust.

Southeastern New Mexico officials testified that building the complex would bring jobs and diversify the region's economy, which is fueled now by oil and gas development that spans the Permian Basin.

However, commissioners in New Mexico two most populous counties — Bernalillo and Dona Ana — adopted resolutions this week opposing the transportation of spent fuel across county lines and the construction of an interim storage facility in the state.

While not necessarily opposed to nuclear power, Bernalillo County Commissioner Walt Benson said "the level of risk is too high and there's a lack of information in terms of containing that risk."

From the decommissioned nuclear plant near the San Onofre Beach in Southern California to plants that have powered communities on East Coast, spent fuel has been piling up for decades and elected officials in those communities want it shipped elsewhere.

U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, a California Democrat, is among those who have sought federal funding to restart the U.S. Department of Energy's consent-based process for locating places where the fuel would be welcomed.

"One of my top priorities since my first day in office has been moving the nuclear waste at San Onofre away from the region as quickly and safely as possible," Levin said in September.

The Biden administration sweetened the pot this month, putting up $26 million for communities interested in studying potential interim storage sites. The deadline to apply is Jan. 31.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, Biden and his top energy officials have pointed to nuclear power as essential to achieving their goals of producing carbon-free electricity over the next decade.

According to the DOE, 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.

Steinborn said the state of New Mexico's willingness to entertain spent fuel storage will hinge on the federal government's ability to identify and fund a permanent solution.

"They just need to change their approach rather than just shove it down the state's throat without any assurances," he said.

Former New Mexico taxation employee sentenced in fraud case - Associated Press

A former New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department employee has been sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for wire fraud, identity theft and money laundering.

Federal prosecutors said 46-year-old George Martinez also was ordered by a judge Wednesday to pay more than $1.2 million in restitution.

Martinez, of Albuquerque, was given a 94-month sentence after pleading guilty in July to 42 counts each of wire fraud and identity theft and six counts of money laundering.

Prosecutors said Martinez used his position as the unit supervisor/bureau chief of the Questionable Refund Unit at the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department to fraudulently alter tax refunds and direct them to bank accounts that he controlled from 2009 until July 2018.

They said Martinez copied tax returns that had already been processed or created new returns in taxpayers' accounts.

Martinez was accused of altering information such as taxpayers' Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and withholding amounts in the returns. By changing the withholding amounts, authorities said he increased the amounts of the refunds.

New Mexico police: School bus failed to yield before crash - Associated Press

A school bus failed to yield at an intersection east of Portales and collided with a tractor-trailer, resulting in injuries to seven students and the drivers of both vehicles, according to authorities.

New Mexico State Police said one student suffered severe injuries in Wednesday morning's crash and was airlifted to a Texas hospital for treatment.

Six other students — along with the 61-year-old man who was driving the school bus and the 28-year-old tractor-trailer driver — suffered injuries not believed to be life-threatening, police said.

The names, ages and conditions of the injured students weren't available Thursday.

Police said the bus was carrying about 17 students who ranged in age from 6 and 15. It's still unclear what school or schools the students attended.

The crash occurred around 7:30 a.m. and a photo provided by police showed the bus with damage on its front end and left rear side.

The large commercial vehicle, carrying a full load of corn, can also be seen in the photo with debris scattered along the roadway.

Police said the crash remains under investigation and they are being assisted by a reconstruction team.

Supporters turn out to champion affirmative consent in Roundhouse hearing - Megan Taros, Source New Mexico 

Legislation making its way through the session would transform how sexual assault cases are handled by public schools and New Mexico colleges that take state money. And it would make what’s known as “affirmative consent” a part of sex ed in high school health classes.

In a room full of educators, students, survivors of sexual assault and advocates, the House Education Committee on Wednesday approved the measure on an 8-2 vote. Representatives Brian Baca (R-Los Lunas) and Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell) dissented.

HB 43 would mandate a “yes means yes” approach to consent in schools both in how assault cases are handled and how students are educated. Rep. Liz Thomson, the measure’s sponsor, said the bill intends to teach students in their health classes that “not saying no doesn’t mean yes. Being passed out doesn’t mean yes. Being unable to speak doesn’t mean yes. Only yes means yes.”

She noted that the year the bill made it to the House floor, it passed overwhelmingly.

This is the third time Thomson (D-Albuquerque) introduced the measure. In 2022, it failed in committee based on procedural concerns during the budget-focused, 30-day session.

Supporters of the legislation said students are often unaware of what affirmative consent means and can’t be expected to understand how to conduct themselves if that information is not taught to them.

“There seems to be a lot of confusion among many students about what is acceptable and what is not,” said Karen Canaday, a lobbyist with the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “I think it’s really important to look at this bill and provide the education that is necessary so they are well aware of what is acceptable and what is not, and that people have the right to be free of sexual abuse and harassment.”

If passed, New Mexico would join states like California and New York by incorporating affirmative consent into their curricula.

In 2015, New York passed its “Enough is Enough” law requiring colleges to set a standard definition of affirmative consent as “knowing, voluntary and mutual decision” between sexual partners. California passed a more stringent law one year before that requires “yes means yes” to be the standard when teaching consent in California. The law included high schools as well as colleges.

Thomson’s bill is more expansive, because with regard to how schools handle cases of assault, domestic violence, dating violence, harassment or stalking, it is not limited to high schools and colleges. Affirmative consent would underscore policy in all public schools.

The measure requires a trauma-informed response protocol. That means there would be an acknowledgement that trauma is a common experience that affects how people think and act, and responders would attempt to not worsen the person’s trauma. Such a response also considers factors like race, gender and disabilities.

Supporters said the affirmative consent approach is “life changing” because it does not only react to assaults that have already happened but strives for prevention. Critiques of the “no means no” concept point out that it places a burden on the victim to say no — as opposed to the perpetrator for not confirming consent.

Jess Clark, director of sexual violence prevention for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said he spent 10 years teaching affirmative consent in northern New Mexico schools and saw a need for those programs.

“The No. 1 comment I got from teachers who were present during our sessions was that they wish that they would’ve had this education when they were young,” he said. “That it would’ve saved them years of confusion and sometimes extraordinary pain. HB 43 will help us ensure that 10 years from now, today’s students won’t have to say the same.”

Reports of sexual violence in schools has been increasing since 2018 following the rise of the #MeToo movement that empowered survivors of sexual assault to share their stories. Settlements and penalties for sexual assault in schools also spiked to $8.4 million in the 2018-19 school year, according to the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority. That’s more than three times the amount from the 2017-18 school year.

In 2021, nearly 10% of high school students in New Mexico reported being coerced into having sex, according to legislative analysts.

New Mexico students have shown strong support for the bill. Student demonstrators marched to the Roundhouse last year to demand the bill be heard. Students again marched in support of the bill on Jan. 20.

“What we’re about is that there is not a space within our school structure to talk about sexual assault, and there is not a space within our school structure to talk about it without feeling like we’re treated with apathy or being questioned — unless it’s an open investigation,” Elena Gonzales, a high school student in New Mexico, told Source NM last year.

Lila Quezada, a high-school senior in Santa Fe with Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, said this week at the House Education Committee meeting that she’s been working on bringing affirmative consent to schools for three years. She said teaching it would be “a small step toward giving everyone a common understanding of consent,” she said. “It will normalize understanding of consent and start the process of change for the next generation.”

The bill still needs to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote. To make it to the governor’s desk for signature, it would also have to pass the Senate-side.

Bernalillo County expands fentanyl prevention efforts with settlement funds - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

New Mexico’s largest county is expanding its efforts to prevent fentanyl use with funding from national opioid settlements with pharmaceutical companies.

The Bernalillo County Commission this week unanimously approved the allocation of $975,000 of the $3.9 million it received in opioid settlements last year for fentanyl awareness and prevention efforts.

The money will fund a marketing campaign though the end of the year and community education through trainings, according to a statement from the county. Other plans include making the keepNMalive.com website a more comprehensive resource, including treatment options.

Commission Chair Barbara Baca called the county’s work to combat the opioid epidemic an “urgent” priority.

Bill requiring safe gun storage clears first hurdle - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

A bill that would mandate gun owners to safely store their firearms to keep them out of the hands of minors has passed its first committee hearing in the New Mexico Legislature.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee approved Democratic-sponsored bill on a 4-2 party-line vote.

The bill would make it a misdemeanor for a gun to be stored in a way that “negligently disregards a minor's ability to access” it if the minor then threateningly displays the firearm or injures someone with it. If the minor causes great bodily harm or kills someone with the gun, the gun owner would face a fourth-degree felony.

The bill contains exemptions if gun owners make a good faith effort at safe storage, the minor burglarizes the firearm, or if it’s used in self-defense.

Lawmakers heard testimony from members of the public who both support and do not support the proposal.

Vanessa Sawyer, the grandmother of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove who was shot and killed at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque in 2021, spoke in favor of the legislation. Police say the middle schooler who shot Hargrove used his fathers’ gun.

Speaking out against the bill was Louie Sanchez, owner of Calibers shooting ranges, who said the proposal was “misguided,” calling instead for education on the matter.

Others questioned whether storing a gun in this way could make it less accessible for use in self-defense in a hurry.

The bill has another committee stop before potentially being voted on by the full House.

New Mexico Police: 7 injured in school bus crash - Associated Press

New Mexico State Police on Wednesday were investigating a crash involving a school bus and a large commercial vehicle that left seven people hospitalized, including one with serious injuries.

Police said in a social media post the crash happened Wednesday morning east of Portales. There were about 22 people on the bus, but their ages and which school they attended was not immediately known.

Authorities did not provide any details about the cause, saying a crash reconstruction unit was on the scene and the investigation was ongoing.

A photo provided by state police shows a school bus with damage on its front end and on the left side near the rear of the vehicle. A large truck with a red cab can also be seen in a photo along with debris along the roadway.

New Mexico governor vows bipartisan effort to fight crime - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed Wednesday to work with state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to address New Mexico's crime problems, a situation she described as untenable.

The state's largest city has had back-to-back years of record homicides and some residents in Albuquerque and elsewhere have complained about not feeling safe in their communities. Retail crime also has been on the rise, with businesses losing millions of dollars to smash-and-grab schemes.

Pointing to the recent mass shootings in California and past shootings in New Mexico, Lujan Grisham said no one should be fearful about sending their children to school or about going to work. She did not specifically mention the recent drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Democratic politicians in Albuquerque.

The governor, who is starting her second term, was flanked by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials during a news conference at the state Capitol as she outlined her public safety priorities.

"We are building a public safety investment strategy for the short term and the long term in this state," she said. "That's going to take every single one of us every single day in a number of ways. And we're going to work collectively to get as many of the best ideas up here as possible."

Her comments came just days after a judge ordered Solomon Peña held without bond pending trial on charges that he allegedly orchestrated a series of shootings at four Democratic officials' homes following his unsuccessful GOP bid for the state house in November. A political newcomer, Peña's has a criminal history that includes felony burglary and larceny convictions.

No one was hurt in the shootings, but the case has reignited the debate over pretrial detention.

Gun control legislation will be among the most debated, with Democratic lawmakers calling for tough penalties for parents and others who let guns fall into the hands of children. Just last week, the governor in her State of the State address also called for a ban on the sale of assault weapons — without defining what weapons would be included — and legislation that would allow victims of gun violence to bring civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

Republican lawmakers have urged caution against passing legislation that would violate the New Mexico Constitution, which is even broader than the U.S. Constitution when it comes to the right to bear arms.

House Minority Leader Ryan Lane said fellow GOP lawmakers are focused on legislation aimed at stopping felons from buying firearms, ensuring that career criminals are not released prematurely and targeting retail crime and other schemes that fund crime syndicates.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck approach," he said. "This is one area where I think we need to seriously say, 'Put politics aside, let's evaluate each idea, each proposal. If it's a good idea that fixes a problem, let's get it done.'"

Joseph Cervantes, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said one of the Legislature's tasks will be looking at laws already passed to see if they're working. He said the solution isn't always passing more laws.

An effort to tighten requirements for pretrial release of people charged with violent crimes had failed last year despite growing public discontent about what has been perceived as a "revolving door" in the criminal justice system.

Sen. Linda Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat, is supporting a bill that would apply "a better filter" for determining which defendants are most dangerous and should remain behind bars pending trial. She said defendants accused of murder, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child and crimes committed with a firearm would be on the list.

Agency delays protections for imperiled bat, prairie chicken - By John Flesher Ap Environmental Writer

The Biden administration is temporarily delaying stepped-up legal protections for two imperiled species following efforts by congressional Republicans to derail the actions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday it was postponing reclassification of the northern long-eared bat from "threatened" to the more severe "endangered" category until March 31. The change had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 30.

On Tuesday, the service announced that new designations for the lesser prairie chicken scheduled to take effect then had been bumped to March 27. The agency is granting endangered status to the grassland bird's southern population segment while listing the northern segment as threatened.

The administration said the delays were intended to give regulators and those affected by the changes — such as landowners, loggers, ranchers and wind turbine operators — time to adjust.

"This is basically a chance for us to get our guidance and tools ready for when the listing goes into effect," agency spokesperson Georgia Parham said, referring to the decision on the northern long-eared bat.

In a separate statement on the lesser prairie chicken, the service said the 60-day grace period would provide a window for establishing grazing management plans and voluntary habitat protection measures.

"We are committed to working proactively with stakeholders to conserve and recover lesser prairie chickens while reducing impacts to landowners, where possible and practicable," the service said.

The listings, both announced in November, drew pushback from GOP lawmakers who complained that stronger protections would disrupt infrastructure projects and other economic activity.

"While a delay gives industry stakeholders valuable time to prepare for more bureaucratic red tape, our preference continues to be that this listing of the lesser prairie chicken be dropped," said Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas. He was among senators who wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this month requesting an extension.

Two dozen House members, led by Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman, wrote a letter to congressional leaders in December pushing unsuccessfully to block federal funding for reclassifying the bat.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of setting a dangerous precedent by holding off on the new designations.

"It's a red flag that they could continue denying the protections," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the center.

"This is happening behind closed doors, there's not enough time for us to challenge it legally and they're just caving to Republican pressure that's driven by industry."

The northern long-eared bat has been driven to the brink of extinction — primarily by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease. Declines are estimated at 97% or higher among affected populations. The bats are found in 37 eastern and north-central states, plus Washington, D.C., and much of Canada.

The disease causes the bats to wake early from hibernation and to sometimes fly outside. They can burn up winter fat stores and eventually starve.

In many cases, the service identifies "critical habitat" areas considered particularly important for survival of an endangered species. Officials decided against doing so for the northern long-eared bat because habitat loss isn't the primary reason for its slump.

Still, the agency plans recovery efforts focused on wooded areas where the bats roost in summer, nestling beneath bark or in tree cavities and crevices.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to be sure projects that they fund or authorize — such as timber harvests, prescribed fires and highway construction — will not jeopardize a listed species' existence.

Westerman and the other Republicans complained that efforts to protect the bat could impose "significant restrictions" on logging, which they said actually can help the bats by increasing roosting and foraging areas. Oil and gas development, mining and other industries also could be hampered, they said.

Parham said the service is crafting instructions to help regulators, landowners and business interests determine more easily how protecting bats' summer habitat might affect individual projects.

The service said it also is developing "conservation tools and guidance documents" involving the lesser prairie chicken for landowners and business interests as well as other government agencies.

The lesser prairie chicken's range covers a portion of the oil-rich Permian Basin along the New Mexico-Texas state line and extends into parts of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. The habitat of the bird, a type of grouse, has diminished across about 90% of its historical range, officials say.

The crow-size, terrestrial birds are known for spring courtship rituals that include flamboyant dances by the males as they make a cacophony of clucking, cackling and booming sounds.

Environmentalists consider the species severely at risk due to oil and gas development, livestock grazing, farming and construction of roads and power lines.

New Mexico bill would ban contracts for migration detention - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit local governments and state agencies from entering into contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private detention facilities to detain immigrants in civil cases.

The bill introduced Tuesday could unwind contractual arrangements at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral in southern New Mexico and spur closer oversight at others. The Otero County facility is operated by Utah-based Management & Training Corporation on behalf of ICE, and typically holds about 600 male and female migrants seeking asylum or legal status in this country.

The bill as presented would not directly compel changes at two other immigration detention facilities in New Mexico that are owned and operated by Nashville, Tennessee-based CoreCivic. Those facilities are the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan and Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia.

The proposal was sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Moe Maestas, both of Albuquerque, with the backing of advocacy groups that are critical of U.S. policies and practices in migrant detention.

Sophia Genovese, an attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said the bill has the potential to halt immigration detention at the largest holding center in the state at Chaparral. It also would inspire closer oversight of detention conditions at two privately owned facilities — if the federal government chooses to contract directly with CoreCivic at its Estancia and Milan sites without involving county governments.

"We're hoping that by demonstrating at the state level that New Mexico does not want ICE detention in our state, that helps at the federal level get rid of these contracts," Genovese said.

The Torrance County Detention Facility was the focus of a scathing inspection report after an unannounced visit in early 2022 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General. The inspector general found unsafe and unsanitary conditions and recommended the relocation of detained migrants.

The findings were disputed by CoreCivic and ICE. A follow-up inspection by the inspector general showed compliance with 10 of its 14 recommendations.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján last year urged the federal government to terminate its contract with CoreCivic at the Torrance County Detention Facility.

It was unclear whether Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the newly filed legislation. Innovation Law Lab and New Mexico Dream Team are among the other supporters of the proposed legislation.

The bill resembles recently enacted legislation in New Jersey, Virginia and Illinois aimed at ending detention in civil immigration cases in local facilities.

California's 2019 ban on privately owned immigration detention facilities was rejected last year by a federal appeals court that cited interference with the federal government's authority to enforce immigration law.


CORRECTION: This version corrects that the bill would directly affect immigration detention contracts at the Otero County Processing Center and not at two other facilities in New Mexico.