WED: New Mexico workplace-safety sanction finalized in Alec Baldwin shooting, + More
Workplace-safety sanction finalized in Alec Baldwin shooting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
No one is objecting to a settlement agreement to resolve allegations of workplace safety violations in the 2021 shooting death of a cinematographer by Alec Baldwin on the set of a Western movie.
After a 20-day vetting period with no objections, the agreement between New Mexico workplace safety regulators and Rust Movie Productions has been finalized along with a $100,000 fine against the company that originally bankrolled the movie "Rust."
Matthew Maez, a spokesman for the state Environment Department and its workplace safety bureau, confirmed Tuesday the conclusion of the workplace safety probe of Rust Movie Productions under a final order. It was unclear whether the fine has been paid.
Separately, Baldwin and weapons supervisor Hannah Gutierrez-Reed are confronting felony involuntary manslaughter charges in the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who died shortly after being wounded during rehearsals at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe in October 2021.
Authorities say Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza.
Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed have pleaded not guilty, and an evidentiary hearing is scheduled in May to determine whether the case can proceed to trial. Baldwin was both a lead actor and coproducer on "Rust." The charges carry a punishment of up to 18 months in prison.
The state's final workplace-safety order states that Rust Movie Productions "did not furnish a place of employment free from hazards in that employees were exposed to being struck by discharged rounds or projectiles when firearms were used on the set of the motion picture production."
Safety violations are categorized as "serious" — and not "willful-serious," as initially alleged.
In April 2022, New Mexico's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau slapped Rust Movie Productions with a maximum $136,793 fine while distributing a scathing narrative of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires on set before the fatal shooting.
The bureau also documented gun-safety complaints from crew members that went unheeded and said weapons specialists were not allowed to make decisions about additional safety training.
Rust Movie Productions previously announced that filming would resume this year on "Rust" at a ranch in Montana, with Hutchins' widower, Matthew Hutchins, serving as the film's new executive producer.
In court proceedings, prosecutors say assistant director David Halls, who oversaw safety on the set, has signed an agreement to plead guilty in the negligent use of a deadly weapon. A judge is scheduled to consider approval of the plea agreement next week.
Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly dies at age 75 - Associated Press
Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly died Wednesday after a long illness, according to a family spokesman.
Shelly died in New Mexico with his family at his side, said Deswood Tome. He was 75.
Shelly took over as president on the vast reservation in January 2011 after serving one term as the tribe's vice president. The 27,000 square-mile reservation extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Shelly lost his re-election bid in 2014, but the Navajo Supreme Court extended his time in office by five months after the tribal election was delayed by a question over Navajo language fluency requirements for the job involving another candidate.
Prior to that, Shelly served on the Navajo Nation Council for 16 years representing his hometown of Thoreau and served eight years as a McKinley County commissioner.
Shelly and his family ran a transportation business for the last seven years.
He is survived by Martha Shelly, his wife of 57 years, plus five children, 12 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Shelly's family will be holding a private service for him with a public memorial planned at a future date.
ABQ Ride reduces routes and bus frequency amid staff shortage - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News
Albuquerque will reduce its bus services beginning Saturday. The city says the changes affect 26 different routes across the city and are due to staffing shortages in the department.
The Albuquerque Journal reports some of the routes will be suspended altogether, including the Albuquerque Rapid Transit Blue Line from the westside to the University of New Mexico. Other routes will continue running, but less frequently. Those include busy buses like the one that runs along Central Ave. as well as the Wyoming Blvd route.
The city says it will reevaluate the reductions if it's able to hire more drivers and mechanics.
Meanwhile, the city is engaging in more systematic changes to its bus system through an initiative called ABQ Ride Forward. The public is invited to weigh in on two concept maps — one that prioritizes busy areas and one that focuses on covering more of the city — according to the Journal. The first of several public meetings is Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Alvarado Transportation Center. There’s also an option to attend remotely.
Lawmaker plans to bring back bill prohibiting senators from drinking on the job – Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News
An effort to ban state senators from drinking on the job failed this year in the legislature. But the freshman lawmaker who introduced it plans to push for it again in a future session.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the resolution by Democratic Sen. Harold Pope of Albuquerque failed to get a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, the only one where it was assigned.
The proposal would have prohibited senators from drinking alcohol before or during committee meetings or floor sessions. Pope says he’s not opposed to alcohol, but that senators should be “clearheaded” when they’re crafting and debating legislation. He also noted that other workplaces don’t allow drinking on the job.
Next year’s legislative session will only last for 30 days and Pope says he needs to research how to bring back the bill since shorter session will mostly focus on budget issues.
Bill at gov’s desk would lift ‘gag order’ for people filing legislative harassment complaints - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
If someone is accused of harassment in the Legislature, they can speak up about it. The person who files a complaint about it can’t.
Legislation that would change that is now awaiting action from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Senators night passed House Bill 169, Disclosure of Legislative Ethics Complaints, by a 34-2 vote on Thursday evening. Sens. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Gregory Baca (R-Belen) voted against it.
This measure would lift the confidentiality agreement that people who file harassment complaints to the interim Legislative Ethics Committee are bound to. Under this bill, they would be able to talk about a complaint or investigation at any time.
The Legislative Ethics Committee and its staff would still be tied to that confidentiality clause.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) explained the bill to the full Senate on Thursday. He said the current measure that silences a person who files a complaint is potentially suspect under the First Amendment, which allows the right to free speech.
“It restricts or limits the complainant’s ability to speak about their own complaint or the investigation as it progresses,” he said.
This new change would allow that person to talk freely about the issue. Cervantes said the purpose of this bill is to “release what is effectively a gag order or rule on a complaining party.”
This move comes following multiple sexual misconduct allegations in 2022 against a senator who’s still around this session. This year, some lobbyists were fearful of lawmakers maintaining professional behavior and conduct.
If Lujan Grisham signs the bill into law, the new rules will start up on June 16.
Albuquerque mayor wants to crack down on speeders who flout cameras - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News
Mayor Tim Keller has proposed legislation that would crack down on drivers who’ve been caught by the city’s speed cameras but haven’t paid up.
The Albuquerque Journal reports that, under the proposed ordinance, speeders with three or more tickets from the cameras could have the vehicles booted or impounded when parked on city property, including Albuquerque streets.
However, the city’s Municipal Development Department only has seven parking officers, who would be responsible for enforcing the policy.
A spokesperson for the department tells the Journal that the officers won’t be going out of their way to find those in violation, but that the policy could make it possible to hold them accountable and be a deterrent to flouting the $100 tickets.
The tickets can also be paid with four hours of community service. About a third of tickets go unpaid, according to the city.
A new law aims to strengthen rural water systems - By Megan Myscofski,Source New Mexico
Anita LaRan has sat on the board of her water system in Mora County that connects dozens of homes to clean water since 2008.
A few hours south in San Ysidro, Ramón Lucero used to help run the system in the community where he raised his family and now works with people in the same position across the state to keep their water flowing, even as the manpower dwindles.
These two New Mexicans live in different communities and are connected by more than the water streams that provide fresh water for residents and agriculture, while also responding to the destruction caused by wildfires. They’ve seen crucial work go unfinished because people age out, pass on, cannot juggle their paying jobs with the volunteer work, or are left displaced by the wildfire destruction.
“I kind of got stuck with everything, and it’s kind of like a full-time job,” LaRan said.
Legislation passed by lawmakers in Santa Fe this year, and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week could allow hundreds of small water systems that exist in the state to create associations that can collectively seek funding for repair work and, among other priorities, find the expertise to fill out required paperwork by state and federal entities.
Lucero saw the need for rural residents in his northern New Mexico community to move away, and then how that impacted the work to keep water flowing to residents.
“It left very few people in the community that were actually keeping up with maintenance,” he said.
HOW IT WILL WORK
The new law called the Regional Water System Resiliency Act was sponsored by Sens. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and Liz Stefanics (D-Cerillos) along with Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo).
Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law on March 13.
It creates the framework for these communities to efficiently pay people to work across multiple systems and ensure these places get reliable, safe water.
Under the law, two or more water associations in New Mexico can create an authority to form economies of scale and get more done. It allows them to elect leadership, run water facilities, create fee structures and use that money to keep up with maintenance, including road work to access acequias. They can also hire people to meet administrative demands across multiple systems, which is key in applying for federal or state money.
But it doesn’t require anyone to do it.
The water associations must be recognized by the New Mexico State Engineer and are ultimately approved by the Secretary of State.
Herrera said this is one of the most important pieces of legislation this session for her district in northern New Mexico.
“Because we have climate change, we have drought, we have fires, we have aging water systems and people don’t have the money or resources to fix them,” she said.
CONSOLIDATING WATER DISTRICT NEEDS
In 2016, LaRan helped form the Mora County Water Alliance, which connects five water systems.
The workload became so great, she and her colleagues began looking around for other small water systems to combine forces with, hoping that together, they could get more done and afford more services to address needs that weren’t being met.
Seven years later, they haven’t been able to lock in the team needed to keep the systems intact, test water health and file state-required reports.
Some systems took a hit with the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire last year. And she doesn’t believe the alliance in Mora is ready for a future with more instability brought on by climate change.
“We still don’t have someone on board to do the reporting, billing and bookkeeping,” she said.
She said there are also fewer people to do the manual work, like shoveling debris in ditches and access points in some of the water systems, especially acequias.
Lucero noticed similar problems.
“As we started moving from that generation to future generations, they got further from the day-to-day operations of the water system and further especially from all the reporting requirements,” Lucero, who works as a field manager for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, said.
He said the problem began in the early 20th century, as Northern New Mexicans moved away for jobs in bigger cities and other states.
As people continue to move out of those communities, age out of the work or simply don’t have time to do it alongside full-time work and caring for family, or have been displaced by the massive fire, these systems don’t receive vital maintenance.
The infrastructure aged, and the new people running it couldn’t get funds from the state to fix it because they hadn’t been meeting the reporting requirements, which they didn’t understand. Lucero said at this point, the system requires a lot from volunteers that just isn’t sustainable.
His job is to help them navigate the reporting system so they can get the money to keep their water systems in shape. He said his organization has fewer than ten employees working with about 80 communities in the state alongside two other technical assistance providers.
“We just can’t keep up with that anymore. There’s just too many compliance issues, too many communities that lack the capacity to keep up,” he said.
A few communities in the state have dealt with this problem by combining resources to hire staff to work across a number of small systems. Lucero said those were a model for the Regional Water Resiliency Act, which he helped write.
Herrera, one of the bill’s sponsors, said this new law will help consolidate the patchwork relief she’s relied on as a legislator.
“In the past, I would put $50,000 Band-Aids on $5 million projects,” she added. To get money for these systems, she’d have to support separate legislation for each. Once they join together, they can go after state and federal money together through legislation or grants.
Herrera said that the New Mexico Finance Authority will incentivize mutual domestic water associations if they regionalize, or create the authorities.
In Mora County, LaRan has not only advocated for this type of cooperation between water systems, but saw firsthand the complications it can bring.
“Sometimes we don’t want to give up control,” LaRan said about the water associations in Mora County. “But I believe that a water system should be run like a business. It should be able to meet financial burdens. It should be able to have some funds available for major breakdowns.”
And she emphasized that while she sees this law as a help to that cause, there’s still a lot of work to do. Most importantly, the Mora County Water Alliance needs funds.
She said once that happens, the group can start to make plans not just for survival, but long-term resiliency.
“At the community level, a lot of people are still reacting,” she said, referring to damage caused by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. “But I think our goal should be to plan way ahead in the future because with climate change, we’re liable to have many more disasters.”
US regulators delay decision on nuclear fuel storage license - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
U.S. regulators say they need more time to wrap up a final safety report and make a decision on whether to license a multibillion-dollar complex meant to temporarily store tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants around the nation.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a new schedule Monday, citing unforeseen staffing constraints. The agency was initially expected to issue a decision by the end of March. It will now be the end of May.
The announcement comes just days after New Mexico approved legislation aimed at stopping the project. It's expected that supporters of the storage facility will take the fight to court, but New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday asked the NRC to suspend its consideration of the license application.
New Jersey-based Holtec International already has spent an estimated $80 million in its pursuit of a 40-year license to build and operate the complex in southeastern New Mexico. Company officials said Tuesday that the delay in licensing would have only a minimal impact on the original timeline.
"With a project of this complexity, we understand the need for the regulating and licensing authority to have all the time and resources necessary to issue a licensing decision," Holtec spokesman Patrick O'Brien said in an email.
Holtec, elected officials from southeastern New Mexico and other supporters have been pushing hard to offer what they call a temporary solution to the nation's problem of spent nuclear fuel, which has been piling up at commercial reactors for years.
Since the federal government has failed to build a permanent repository, it reimburses utilities to house the fuel in either steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as casks at sites in nearly three dozen states. That cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
The legislation signed by Lujan Grisham last week requires that the state provide consent for bringing in such radioactive material. Consent from the Democratic governor would be unlikely, as she has argued that without a permanent repository, New Mexico stands to be the nation's de facto dumping ground.
She reiterated her opposition in the letter to NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson.
"Thank you for respecting the state of New Mexico's laws and the voices of our citizens, tribes and pueblos who overwhelming(ly) supported this legislation," she wrote.
Similar battles have been waged in Nevada, Utah and Texas over the decades as the U.S. has struggled to find a home for spent fuel and other radioactive waste. The proposed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada was mothballed and a temporary storage site planned on a Native American reservation in Utah was sidelined despite being licensed by the NRC in 2006.
That project would have been located on land belonging to the Skull Valley Band of Goshute. Utah's governor at the time — Republican Mike Leavitt — was among those fighting the effort. He and others were successful in getting Congress to amend a defense spending bill, essentially landlocking the site by creating the Cedar Mountain Wilderness and blocking a rail spur that would have delivered casks.
But it was only six weeks later that the NRC issued a license for the project.
Don Hancock with the nuclear watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center pointed to the Utah case.
"If congressional action doesn't affect NRC decision making, there's no reason to think that New Mexico action has an effect," he said in an email Tuesday.
Elected leaders in Texas also were unsuccessful in keeping a similar project from being licensed by the NRC in 2021. Integrated Storage Partners LLC's initial plans call for storing up to 5,000 metric tons (5,512 tons) of spent fuel and about 230 metric tons (254 tons) of low-level radioactive waste for 40 years. Future phases could boost that capacity to 40,000 metric tons (44,092 tons) of fuel.
Holtec officials are disappointed in the New Mexico legislation and argue that their project is safe, would be an economic boon for the region and would not affect ongoing operations in the Permian Basin, which is one of the world's most productive oil and gas plays.
"Passing a bill that is pre-empted by federal law and will be adjudicated accordingly in the courts is a counterproductive action that inhibits the state's growth in the area of clean energy," O'Brien said, adding that local support has solidified the company's belief that the project is still viable.
President Joe Biden has received dueling letters from supporters of the project and from Lujan Grisham and others in opposition. The administration has acknowledged the role nuclear power will have to play in reaching its carbon emission goals and earlier this year put up $26 million in grants for communities interested in studying potential interim storage sites.
What plaintiffs targeting abortion pill want might not even be possible - Sofia Resnick, States Newsroom
At the center of the federal anti-abortion lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the abortion drug mifepristone and the regimen that reportedly accounts for the majority of abortions in post-Roe America. That’s why the whole country is bracing itself for a ruling from a notoriously anti-abortion judge in Amarillo, Texas.
The attention and confusion around this case might end up being the most impactful aspects about it, as many legal scholars doubt the judge has the legal authority to do what plaintiffs are asking for, which boils down to forcing the FDA to essentially recall a drug that for two decades has maintained a record of efficacy and safety. But regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, legal experts still think a ruling that even briefly or partially favors plaintiffs will likely have lasting consequences on U.S. abortion access and affect medication policy beyond abortion.
“What this case is doing is only increasing the politicization of mifepristone and abortion, as well as the entire FDA approval process, and [it’s] calling into question the impartiality and the legitimacy of our court system, as well as our FDA approval process,” Georgia State University law professor Allison M. Whelan told States Newsroom.
Last month Whelan along with 18 other FDA legal scholars co-signed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the FDA, arguing that U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk doesn’t have the authority to force the FDA to immediately withdraw approval of mifepristone, which plaintiffs have asked him to do via preliminary injunction while the rest of the lawsuit unfolds.
Theoretically, the judge could decline to order the total withdrawal of the drug but could grant some of plaintiffs’ other demands, which include ordering the FDA to reinstate regulations that were lifted within the last several years. In 2000 the FDA approved a medication abortion regimen involving the hormone blocker mifepristone followed by misoprostol to expel the pregnancy. Later the FDA extended the gestational age that this protocol could be used from seven weeks to 10, eliminated the in-person dispensing requirement, and most recently has allowed pharmacies to dispense the drug directly to patients under certain restrictions – though that policy is still being rolled out.
The FDA scholars and other legal experts say the process to withdraw drug approval (or to undo decisions made around a drug) can take years, requires public input, and discretion ultimately falls to the FDA. And in the meantime, the agency could choose whether or how to enforce any order that the drug is unapproved, said Whelan, whose scholarship and teaching focus includes FDA law and reproductive justice.
“[T]he FDA would issue this policy statement that signals for manufacturers that from the FDA’s perspective, the FDA is not going to bring any sort of a civil or criminal action against the company for continuing to sell their drug,” Whelan told States Newsroom. “The FDA has issued enforcement discretion policies many times, including recently with the infant formula crisis.”
Even Kacsmaryk questioned his own powers during last Wednesday’s injunction hearing.
“[I]s it that you expect this Court to order the FDA to begin a suspension or withdrawal, almost like a writ-type scenario, or that the Court itself can withdraw or suspend on its own accord?” Kacsmaryk asked, according to the court transcript.
“The latter,” replied Erik Baptist, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christian legal shop representing plaintiffs. “We take the position that the Court, on its own accord, can order the FDA to withdraw or suspend the approval of the drug.”
“And explain to me your argument on why this Court has that sweeping authority,” Kacsmaryk replied.
Baptist replied vaguely that the court has the power to “enjoin and take whatever action to prevent harm.”
Despite plaintiffs’ claims that medication abortion is dangerous, there is ample evidence of its efficacy and safety. In more than two decades, there have been 28 reported deaths associated with mifepristone and a generally low rate of adverse events, according to the FDA.
The issue of drug approval is just one among several reasons defendants (and legal analysts) argue the case should be thrown out. Others include that the statute of limitations on plaintiffs’ complaints has expired and that plaintiffs did not exhaust administrative remedies to challenge FDA’s approval of mifepristone.
Attorneys for the government have argued that plaintiffs do not have standing to bring their claims and have not shown how they would be directly harmed by keeping mifepristone on the market. Plaintiffs have largely argued that doctors represented in the lawsuit might see an increase in workload in their emergency rooms if more medication abortion patients experience complications and seek medical treatment. Even if that were a viable argument, plaintiffs have not provided evidence that medication abortion is causing a large amount of adverse effects and problems – beyond speculation and minimal anecdotes.
Plaintiffs have also asked the court to weigh in on a dormant federal law from the 1800s known as the Comstock Act, which anti-abortion advocates have been trying to argue legally prevents abortion pills from being sent in the mail, but the Biden administration contests this. Defendants have argued that whether a drug can be legally mailed has no bearing on this case about drug approvals.
A Trump appointee, Kacsmaryk previously served as deputy counsel for a Christian conservative legal group called First Liberty Institute, where he worked on cases fighting access to reproductive health care. “As a federal judge, Kacsmaryk has struck down protections for LGBTQ workers and trans youth and ruled that a federal family planning program’s policy of offering confidential birth control to teens violates federal law and Texas state law, potentially making it harder for Texas teens to access contraception (the ruling has been appealed).
But given all of the legal problems with the abortion pill case, legal journalist Chris Geidner suggests there are a lot of reasons why this case could fail, despite Kacsmaryk’s ideology and sympathies to some of the plaintiffs’ arguments.
“Anything could happen — and much has been made of Kacsmaryk’s background and rulings thus far on the bench — but DOJ and Danco’s lawyers made as strong a case as possible that Kacsmaryk would be going far afield of the law by doing anything about the 2000 approval of mifepristone, especially with these plaintiffs on these facts.”
This case is ongoing (as are several federal lawsuits about medication abortion), and Kacsmaryk’s preliminary injunction is likely to be appealed. Additionally, the ruling itself would only apply to the FDA and Danco Laboratories, one of the manufacturers of the abortion pill. Still, a decision that favors the coalition of national conservative Christian medical associations known as the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, and the four plaintiff doctors is sure to have far-reaching legal consequences, and could add more distress and confusion for manufacturers, pharmacists, and health care providers. Beyond abortion, Whelan said a favorable decision could open the door to lawsuits against politically controversial vaccines and hormone replacement therapies.
A favorable decision could also embolden more states to try to ban mifepristone using the argument – if Kacsmaryk buys it – that the medication abortion regimen was not lawfully approved or properly vetted, which many legal and policy analysts say is patently false. A ruling that limits medication abortion in some way – even if it’s not enforceable – will add yet another confusing legal layer to the panoply of state anti-abortion laws that have led to pregnant women frantically traveling for abortion care outside their states, even for medical emergencies.
“It’s like there is no light at the end of the tunnel as to when this is going to end, and it’s just so problematic from a patient and provider perspective because of the uncertainty,” Whelan said. “I cannot imagine being a healthcare provider who does reproductive health care going to work every day thinking, ‘Can I do this today? I was allowed to do it yesterday. Can I do it today? Will I be able to do it tomorrow?’”