MON: New Mexico Sues Over Nuclear Waste Plan, Cannabis Focus Of Special Session, + More

Mar 29, 2021

New Mexico Sues US Over Proposed Nuclear Waste Storage Plans - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico sued the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday over concerns that the federal agency hasn't done enough to vet plans for a multibillion-dollar facility to store spent nuclear fuel in the state, arguing that the project would endanger residents, the environment and the economy.

New Jersey-based Holtec International wants to build a complex in southeastern New Mexico where tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants around the nation could be stored until the federal government finds a permanent solution. State officials worry that New Mexico will become a permanent dumping ground for the radioactive material.

The complaint filed in federal court contends the commission overstepped its authority regarding Holtec's plans and that granting a license to the company could result in "imminent and substantial endangerment" to New Mexico. The state cited the potential for surface and groundwater contamination, disruption of oil and gas development in one of the nation's most productive basins and added strain on emergency response resources.

The state also raised concerns about a similar project planned just across the state line in West Texas.

New Mexico has accused the commission of colluding with Holtec in "rubber-stamping" the proposal. The state argues that almost every interested party that has filed a challenge has been denied standing and an opportunity to meaningfully participate.

"The NRC's mandate does not include policy setting or altering the public debate and emphatically cheerleading nuclear industry projects. Yet it is doing both to the detriment of New Mexico," the complaint says.

The commission did not immediate respond to questions about New Mexico's complaint. However, it has maintained over the course of the licensing process that it has followed procedure and that public hearings have been held and an environmental review was done.

Holtec 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.

Holtec executives have said the storage project is needed because the U.S. has yet to find a permanent solution for dealing with the tons of spent fuel building up at commercial nuclear power plants.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, 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.

In all, there's roughly 83,000 metric tons of spent fuel sitting at temporary storage sites in nearly three dozen states. The fuel is either enclosed in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as casks.

The first phase of the proposed New Mexico project calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel over six decades.

New Mexico's complaint highlights a legal quandary for the federal government. Both license applications call for the Energy Department to take ownership of the spent fuel at a future date and contract with the developers of the facilities to store it until a permanent repository becomes available. However, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act doesn't allow the Energy Department to take ownership until a permanent repository is in place.

"It is fundamentally unfair for our residents to bear the risks of open ended uncertainty," New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement.

Holtec has said the site in New Mexico — about 35 miles from Carlsbad — is remote and geologically stable.

Despite opposition from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others in the state, elected leaders in southeastern New Mexico support the project, saying it would bring jobs and revenue to the region and provide a temporary option for dealing with the spent fuel.

The state first objected to federal regulators' preliminary recommendation that a license be granted to Holtec in comments submitted to the commission last fall. Aside from New Mexico's other concerns, state officials have said regulators failed to consider environmental justice concerns and have fallen short of other requirements spelled out by federal environmental laws.

Marijuana Takes Center Stage In New Mexico Special Session - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are embarking on an unusual legislative session that may focus entirely on the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Efforts at legalizing the sale of cannabis to adults 21 and older faltered during the regular annual session that ended March 20, amid divergent views about government oversight of a lucrative market.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called back legislators to the Statehouse to hammer out an agreement on thorny issues of tax rates on pot sales, precautions against child access and court procedures for reversing past cannabis convictions. Negotiations are well underway in private.

The special session will begin Tuesday. House Republicans criticized the effort as frivolous and disrespectful in the run-up to Good Friday and Easter celebrations in a heavily Roman Catholic state.

Lujan Grisham's administration has pushed for close oversight of marijuana markets, including possible caps on licenses and the amount of marijuana grown. Legalization skeptics have cautioned against any regulations that create a government-sanctioned monopoly that might hinder opportunity.

Successful legislation would extend legal recreational cannabis sales across the American Southwest, from California to the New Mexico state line with Texas, which still prohibits nonmedical pot.

"It's a big economic development tool that we have at our disposal. And it is the right thing to do," said Democratic state Rep. Javier Martinez, lead sponsor a bill that won House approval in February and stalled amid discord in the Senate.

His bill emphasized support for communities where the criminalization of pot led to aggressive policing, offering automated expungement procedures for past marijuana crimes to opportunities for small-time entrepreneurs through "micro-licenses."

Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell is advocating for a free market approach with minimal taxes aimed at low prices that undercut the illicit market, with an emphasis on employer rights to a drug-free workplace and public spending to safeguard roadway safety from pot-impaired drivers.

Incumbent medical marijuana producers are divided over how to proceed amid aggressive lobbying. Many fear unlimited business licenses and wide-open competition would undermine stable retail prices, financial investments and stable employment.

"There's just that opportunity to saturate the market and really damage the industry," said Erik Briones, owner of Minerva Canna, a medical marijuana production, manufacturing and distribution business with about 70 employees.

A solution to the stalemate could involve two complementary bills that draw a line between basic regulatory oversight of cannabis crops and retail products in one bill, and programs in another bill related to social and economic justice for communities harmed by drug interdiction efforts.

Republicans endorsed the approach last week, hinting at some possible support for legalization that is not tied to social and economic justice issues.

Of 15 states with sanctioned recreational marijuana markets, New Mexico would become only the third or fourth state to make recreational cannabis legal through the legislative process, following in the footsteps of Illinois and Vermont. In Virginia, an approved legalization bill awaits the governor's signature.

Lujan Grisham endorsed cannabis legalization on the campaign trail in 2018 as a promising tool for economic development, and Democratic voters in 2020 ousted several prominent opponents of recreational marijuana from the state Senate.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth says that voters deserve another concerted effort by legislators to legalize, after the clock ran out on recent negotiations.

New Mexico Eases Vaccination Process For Older ResidentsAssociated Press

New Mexico is trying to make it even easier for residents 75 and older to get vaccinated.

The state Health Department announced Monday that people in that age group will no longer need event codes in order to schedule appointments to get their COVID-19 vaccinations. Instead, those who are registered with the state will get invitations and will use their confirmation codes and dates of birth to schedule appointments.

"New Mexico has vaccinated the large majority of our seniors, and we have reached out to nearly all the rest. We expect this change to make it easier for all remaining seniors to get their shots," Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said in a statement.

In all, more than one-quarter of New Mexicans have been fully vaccinated.  Just over 43% have received their first shots.

Under the state's vaccine distribution plan, health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, all New Mexicans 75 and older as well as those 60 and older with chronic health conditions are being prioritized. The state is aiming to open up eligibility later this spring as part of a push by the federal government to get more people vaccinated.

The Health Department said vaccination events are being scheduled at senior centers each week in one of the state's four quadrants. About 5,000 doses per week are distributed through those events.

Security Fence, Cops, No Longer Encircle New Mexico Capitol - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

A security fence erected around the New Mexico state capitol in January was dismantled over the weekend, removing the most visible sign of the unprecedented security measures taken by the state after the Jan. 6 riots in Washington, D.C.

Workers were seen Saturday taking down segments of the chain-link fence and loading them onto a trailer.

The fence was erected in Santa Fe and guarded by National Guard Soldiers and State Police officers following the U.S. Capitol riot. The added security cost at least $700,000 with over $15,000 spent on renting the fence, according to a March 12 response from state officials.

In the past few weeks, the State Police and National Guard reduced their presence, with fewer checkpoints in the area around the capitol. The remaining security forces left abruptly at the conclusion of the regular legislative session on March 20.

The building is traditionally open to the public and lobbyists. Before the pandemic, the Roundhouse's center rotunda was a site for musical performances, field trips, and even massages. This year, it was a site for COVID-19 testing.

Despite being closed during the pandemic, the entrance to the building was the site for protests last summer and fall, including civil rights marches in support of Black Lives Matter and against COVID-19 restrictions laid out in emergency health orders.

The fence effectively pushed all demonstrators out of sight to the streets surrounding the complex.

State Democrats who have set the rules have touted an increase in pandemic-era participation by the public via Zoom, saying that remote options for comment are making the Legislature more accessible to people across the large, rural state. Comments were also allowed to be phoned in.

The practice could continue even after in-person public comment is allowed.

"And Zoom in the House is here to stay. We're going to figure out how to make it be part of the hybrid process going forward," said Democratic House Majority Speaker Brian Egolf.

State Republicans have criticized remote participation and the fence as a limit on civic participation and expression.

The public will still be barred from entering the Roundhouse and its legislative chambers in a special session starting Tuesday. Its focus is to pass legislation to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis.

Arizona Declares State Holiday To Honor Native Code TalkersAssociated Press

Arizona has a new state holiday.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill Monday to honor Native Americans who used their language to transmit coded messages during World War II.

Arizona has recognized code talkers by proclamation and through legislation for years. The bill sponsored by state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai makes Aug. 14 a state holiday. It will be observed on a Sunday when state offices already are closed.

While hundreds of Navajos were recruited as code talkers, about a dozen Hopis and members of other tribes also covertly sent wartime messages.

Peshlakai, who is Navajo, said it's important that Arizonans remember their service and bravery. Less than a handful of Navajo Code Talkers are still alive.

The Navajo Nation celebrates Aug. 14 as a tribal holiday, marking the date Japan announced it would surrender to the Allied forces. The annual ceremony typically is held in person but was moved online last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Off-Duty Las Cruces Firefighter Gets Bee Swarm To Buzz OffAssociated Press

A Las Cruces firefighter who is also a beekeeper is credited with safely removing a swarm of bees found inside a parked car.

City officials say the incident occurred Sunday shortly after 4 p.m. outside an Albertson's supermarket. A shopper had put his groceries in his car and was about to drive when he spotted the swarm in the backseat.

Firefighters called on Jesse Johnson, an off-duty firefighter with beekeeping experience. Johnson arrived with proper beekeeping attire was able to remove the bees.

The whole process took about two hours. The swarm, comprised of an estimated 15,000 bees, was transported to Johnson's own property.

GOP Picks Mark Moores To Run US House Seat That Haaland Held – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A cadre of New Mexico state Republican Party leaders on Saturday chose state Sen. Mark Moores to run for the Albuquerque-based congressional seat held by Deb Haaland before she was confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Moores won 40% of the 121 votes cast during a videoconference meeting by members of the Republican Party central committee who live in the 1st Congressional District.

The seven-candidate field also included conservative radio talk show host Eddy Aragon, who placed second with 28% of the vote.

Democrats have held the 1st District seat since 2009. But Republicans see an opening in a potentially low-turnout special election set for June 1.

The district has consistently been a stepping stone to higher office for Republican and Democratic politicians, including now-deceased Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., former U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

A three-term state senator, Moores positioned himself as a seasoned campaigner and fundraiser, with a conservative voting record at the Statehouse in Santa Fe on issues of gun rights and natural resources.

New Mexico Plans To Close Women's Prison In Rural Community – Associated Press

New Mexico plans to close a women’s prison located in a small rural town and transfer the inmates and workers elsewhere.

Officials said Friday that timing and other details regarding the closure of the Springer Correctional Center in the Colfax County community of Springer remain to be determined.

The head of the Department of Corrections said closing the prison “will allow for more fiscally responsible operation of the remaining state facilities, while maintaining safe housing for the inmate population."

The most recent annual report posted on the Department of Corrections website for the 2019 fiscal year said the prison had an average daily population of 350.

Springer Mayor Boe Lopez said he was disappointed by the news and its timing and said it will be hard to replace the prison's 150 jobs.

Numerous women have filed lawsuits alleging they were sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by guards and then ignored or retaliated against when they reported the abuse.

New Mexico Police Say 2 Teens Not Abducted But Still MissingAssociated Press

Authorities are searching for two teenage girls last seen at an Albuquerque hotel.

New Mexico State Police said Monday they no longer believe the girls were abducted. They issued a revised Amber Alert characterizing 14-year-old Zuriah Castillo and 16-year-old Jaylynn Miller as missing.

According to investigators, the teens were in the Santo Domingo Pueblo area on Saturday shortly after 7 p.m. when they asked for a ride. They were dropped off at the Courtyard by Marriott.

Police initially believed that a man kidnapped them. But it's now believed he was an acquaintance giving them a ride.

Authorities say the girls may be in danger.

Castillo is described as 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds. She has bleach blonde and dark brown hair down to her shoulders and brown eyes.

Miller is described as 5 feet tall and 112 pounds. She has shoulder-length brown hair dyed red and brown eyes.

Both girls were last seen wearing similar outfits — a white V-neck shirt with black jeans.

State Police said the alert was issued at the request of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

New Mexico State Police: 2 Teenage Girls Abducted By A Man – Associated Press

Authorities were searching Sunday for two teenage girls who reportedly were abducted in the Albuquerque area.

New Mexico State Police said an Amber Alert was issued late Saturday night after a man allegedly abducted the teens at a gas station in Santo Domingo Pueblo.

They have been identified as 14-year-old Zuriah Castillo and 16-year-old Jaylynn Miller.

State Police said a 37-year-old Albuquerque man is wanted in the case.

Witnesses provided a description of the suspect’s vehicle and his license plate number.

According to the Amber Alert, the suspect has ties to the Gallup area, but it’s not known where the vehicle was headed.

State Police said the alert was issued at the request of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


Judge Tosses New Mexico Rancher's Claim After He Kills Wolf Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A federal judge has tossed a rancher's claim that he should still have the right to use federal land in New Mexico after it was revoked for killing a wolf.

Craig Thiessen killed an endangered Mexican wolf in Gila National Forest six years ago and has since argued that he should still be allowed to graze his cattle on the 48,000 acres (about 194 square kilometers) of public land, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported  on Friday.

That argument was rejected this week by U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Fouratt.

Thiessen pleaded guilty in 2018 for killing the wolf. He faced a year of probation and a $2,300 fine. Later that year, the U.S. Forest Service revoked his company's permit to graze cattle on the public land.

A court document said he had 286 cows and 143 calves on the property. Thiessen has continued legal action in an attempt to keep his cattle on the land. The federal forest service has sued Thiessen to remove the cows.

Hayden Ballard, an attorney who has represented Thiessen, did not respond to a request for comment on Friday by the newspaper.

Representatives from four conservation groups said in a statement that Thiessen had given up his privileges to use the public land after his actions.

Greta Anderson from the Western Watersheds Project accused Thiessen on Friday of animal cruelty by killing the wolf. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that numerous accounts said the young wolf's leg was caught in a trap and it was then struck with a shovel.


This story has been corrected to show the U.S. Forest Service revoked the permit and sued the rancher.

New Mexico Reports 167 New COVID-19 Cases But No New Deaths – Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico on Sunday reported 167 confirmed COVID-19 cases but no new deaths amid continued slowing of the coronavirus outbreak.

The state’s pandemic totals rose to 191,048 cases and 3,925 known deaths as seven-day rolling averages of daily new cases and daily deaths declined over the past two weeks.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

In the latest numbers, Bernalillo County had 50 of the new cases.

The state’s largest county that includes metro Albuquerque has had 54,495 of the state’s total coronavirus cases with Dona Ana County having 23,735 total cases since the pandemic started.

Navajo Nation Extends, Loosens Its Health Order On COVID-19 – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has extended and loosened a health order intended to help curb spread of the coronavirus.

Under the latest “safer at home” order issued Friday, the daily curfew hours are 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and businesses can remain open until 9 p.m. daily.

The order also includes provisions allowing outdoor “drive-in” gatherings in which people remain in their vehicles, park at at least six feet from other vehicles, and wear masks.

The tribe on Saturday reported 12 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and one more death, increasing its pandemic totals to 30,052 cases and 1,246 deaths.

The Navajo Nation's reservation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.