MON: NM Weighs Changes To Building Permit For WIPP, 2021 Fire Season Starts Drier Than 2020 + More

May 24, 2021

New Mexico Weighs Changes To Permit For Nuclear Waste Dump - Associated Press

U.S. officials are pushing state regulators to clear the way for a new ventilation shaft to be built at the federal government's nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico, but watchdog groups say modifying the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's permit to allow for the construction could open the door to expansion.

The state Environment Department's Hazardous Waste Bureau held a virtual hearing over the past week to gather comments on the proposed permit change. A final decision is anticipated in mid-October.

Ventilation has been an issue since 2014, when a radiation release contaminated parts of the underground facility and forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure, delayed the federal government's cleanup program and prompted policy changes at national laboratories and defense-related sites across the U.S. 

Officials with the U.S. Energy Department have said the new shaft is needed to repair a "crippled" ventilation system, the Carlsbad Current-Argus newspaper reported.

With more airflow, officials argue that more workers can be in the underground space working on mining and waste operations simultaneously.

"Air to an underground mine is like blood to body," said Michael Woodward, counsel for the Energy Department and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that runs the facility. "Without sufficient airflow, and underground mine simply cannot operate. There must be sufficient air to allow multitasking in the underground."

Woodward said at the hearing that the utility shaft was not intended to expand the repository. He said the amount of waste to be entombed there was established by Congress and only Congress could expand the plant's mission.

Robert Kehrman, a retired geoscientist and consultant at the repository, testified about the need for the shaft to allow multiple operations to be done in tandem.

The proposal is supported by leaders from the nearby city of Carlsbad, where many of the plant's employees live.

Chad Ingram, executive director of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, said the repository for decades provided jobs and support to the community and that he believed the proposed shaft project was developed with worker safety in mind.

Cynthia Weehler, a Santa Fe resident and representative of activist group Stop Forever WIPP, argued the utility shaft was indicative of the Energy Department gradually expanding the repository using individual projects rather than proposing the overall goal of altering the facility's mission to extend its lifetime.

She said that if New Mexico approves the permit, it would seem to be "colluding" with the Energy Department "to relabel a new mission and a future expansion." 

"It will lead us to an operation we didn't consent to," Weehler said.

Grim Western Fire Season Starts Much Drier Than Record 2020 – Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

Scientists say the outlook for the western U.S. fire season is grim because it's starting far drier than 2020's record-breaking fire year. Measurements show soil and plants are much drier, making trees and brush more likely to ignite and fire to spread.

A climate change-fueled megadrought of more than 20 years is making conditions that lead to fire even more dangerous, scientists said. Rainfall in the Rockies and farther west was the second lowest on record in April, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Now more than 77% of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico is in either extreme or exceptional drought. Juniper trees are dying, and fire officials say their canopies of dead needles are like having gasoline out in the national forests.

This doesn’t necessarily ensure the 2021 fire season will be worse than 2020. Several scientists said last year’s fires were stoked not just by hot, dry conditions, but by unusual lightning barrages that are unlikely to occur two years in a row.

Plan To Relocate Wolves Stirs Debate In Rural New Mexico – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Monday marked the last day for people to comment on plans by U.S. wildlife managers to relocate a pair of wolves and their pups to one of Ted Turner’s properties in New Mexico as part of a decades-long effort to return the endangered predators to the Southwest.


Environmental groups have been being pushing for the release. They used a recent meeting of the New Mexico Game Commission to make public their support and urged followers via emails and social media to join the campaign and send letters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before the deadline.


But ranchers have concerns given the wolf pair's previous conflicts with livestock. Some have sent their own letters to the federal agency, voicing frustrations that they did not learn about the plan until recently and that ranchers and residents who will be affected were not adequately notified.


The proposal for letting the wolves go on the Ladder Ranch comes as federal managers try to boost genetic diversity among the wild population in New Mexico and Arizona.


Ranchers argue that there’s nothing to keep the wolves from wandering to other parts of the Gila National Forest. They noted the previous conflicts happened about 15 miles from where the wolves would be released.


Officials with the Ladder Ranch welcome the plan, saying the offer to have wolves roaming the property was made years ago. Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, has said the pair and their pups deserve a shot at trying to make a go of it in the wild.


Plans called for releasing the wolves next month.


Under the proposal, the wolves and their pups would be moved from their temporary home at a wildlife refuge in central New Mexico to the Ladder Ranch, where they would be kept in a remote chain-link pen for a couple of weeks so they can acclimate to the area. International Firm To Buy Power From New Mexico Wind Farms – Associated Press

A California-based renewable energy company that is building a collection of wind farms in New Mexico announced Monday that an international firm has signed a 15-year deal to purchase power from the development.

Pattern Energy did not disclose the value of the transaction with Uniper but said it will involve up to 219,000 megawatt hours a year, or enough to supply electricity to more than 20,000 homes annually.

In North America, Uniper conducts sales, trading and marketing activities to help customers meet goals for reducing their carbon footprint. Company officials said the agreement with Pattern Energy will provide another option for accessing more renewable generation.

Spanning Guadalupe, Lincoln and Torrance counties, the Western Spirit Wind project will have a total capacity of more than a gigawatt when completed later this year — enough to power 590,000 homes. Developers have billed it as the largest single-phase renewable power build out in the U.S.

The wind project is being developed in conjunction with a transmission line that will be capable of funneling wind power from central New Mexico to other markets.

The line is being developed jointly by Pattern Energy and the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority. It will connect directly to the Public Service Co. of New Mexico system and will be operated by the utility once complete.

That is expected to be another boon for Avangrid — the U.S. subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola that is working to acquire PNM — as more states mandate higher percentages of renewable energy.

City Of Albuquerque Collects 166 Guns In A Buyback Program - Associated Press

The city of Albuquerque has collected nearly 170 guns in a buyback program designed to get the weapons off the street.

Albuquerque City Council member Cynthia Borrego said lots of people surrendered their guns and she saw knives also being surrendered along with ammunition.

People received gift cards in exchange for unwanted guns. 

Albuquerque TV station KOB reported that each returned gun was checked into a police database to see if it was stolen or part of a crime. 

Each firearm is destroyed so it doesn't end up in the wrong hands. 

Albuquerque police said two of the 166 guns collected by the end of Saturday's event turned out to be stolen.

Virgin Galactic Rocket Ship Ascends From New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Virgin Galactic on Saturday made its first rocket-powered flight from New Mexico to the fringe of space in a manned shuttle, as the company forges toward offering tourist flights to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere.

High above the desert in a cloudless sky, the VSS Unity ignited its rocket to hurtle the ship and two pilots toward space. A live feed by showed the ship accelerating upward and confirmed a landing later via radar.

Virgin Galactic announced that its VSS Unity shuttle accelerated to three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of just over 55 miles above sea level before making its gliding return through the atmosphere.

British billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the flight and landing bring the roughly 15-year-old venture tantalizingly close to commercial flights for tourists. Virgin Galactic says those flights could begin next year.

"Today was just an incredible step in the right direction," Branson told The Associated Press shortly after the flight landings. "It tested a lot of new systems that the teams have been building and they all worked."

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said at least two more undated test flights lie ahead — the next with four mission specialist passengers in the cabin. Pending trials also include a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space.

"The flight today was elegant, beautiful," Colglazier said. "We're going to analyze all the data that we gather on these flights. But watching from the ground and speaking with our pilots, it was magnificent. So now it's time for us to do this again."

Virgin Galactic said the flight provided an assessment of upgrades to a horizontal stabilizer, other flight controls and a suite of cabin cameras designed to provide live images of the flight to people on the ground. 

The shuttle also carried a scientific payload in cooperation with NASA's Flight Opportunities Program.

Preparations for the latest flight included a maintenance review of the special carrier plane that flies the six-passenger spacecraft to a high altitude, where it is released so it can fire its rocket motor and make the final push to space. 

The first powered test of the rocket ship in New Mexico from Spaceport America was delayed repeatedly before Saturday's launch. In December 2020, computer trouble caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spaceship's rocket from firing properly. 

Instead of soaring toward space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.

While Virgin Galactic's stock price ticked up this week with the announcement of the latest test being scheduled for Saturday, it wasn't enough to overcome the losses seen since a peak in February. Some analysts have cautioned that it could be a while before the company sees profits as the exact start of commercial operations is still up in the air.

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space.

Elon Musk's SpaceX will launch a billionaire and his sweepstakes winners in September. That is expected to be followed in January 2022 by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station. 

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing as it aims to get its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground. It's planning for liftoff of its first crewed flight on July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before. The first time was from California in December 2018.

The flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles as the rocket motor is turned off and the crew prepares to reenter the atmosphere and glide to a landing. 

As part of the return trip, a feathering system slows and stabilizes the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere.

New Mexico taxpayers have invested over $200 million in the Spaceport America hangar and launch facility, near Truth or Consequences, after Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, pitched the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant.

Richardson watched Saturday's flight from the ground below and later thanked the residents of local counties who committed early on to a sales tax increase to support the venture.

"It's finally a great day after all of us taking a lot of heat — mainly me — over a period of time," Richardson said. "But it's happened. It's successful."

One Priest Killed, Another Injured In Albuquerque Car Crash - Associated Press

One priest was killed and another injured after the car they were in was struck by a speeding vehicle that may have been racing, authorities in Albuquerque said Sunday.

Bernalillo County Sheriff's officials said 35-year-old Rev. Graham Golden died in the crash and 24-year-old Brother Lorenzo Romero was hurt but expected to recover.

Abbot Joel Garner told Albuquerque TV station KOB that the two priests were on the way to a restaurant when the crash occurred about 9:30 p.m. Friday as Golden's car was pulling out of the Santa María de la Vid Abbey.

Witnesses told sheriff's deputies the suspect vehicle was speeding and possibly racing another car, which swerved to avoid the crash and sped off.

Authorities said nobody in the vehicle that crashed into the two priests was injured or arrested, although the investigation is ongoing and deputies are searching for the vehicle that left the scene.

Garner said Golden, an Albuquerque native, graduated from the University of New Mexico and joined the Norbertine community 12 years ago and was ordained a priest five years ago.

Golden was formerly a pastor at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church and later at St. Augustine Church at Isleta Pueblo. 

Navajo Nation Reports 12 New COVID-19 Cases But No Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 12 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths. 

Tribal health officials said the latest figures released Saturday evening pushed the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 30,767 on the vast reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. 

The known death toll now is at 1,299. On Saturday, there were two new coronavirus cases on the reservation but no reported deaths. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says more than half of the 

reservation's adult population has been vaccinated.

"When you wear a mask, you are being a warrior because you're protecting yourself and others from the virus," Nez said in a statement. "Please continue to wear masks in public, wash your hands often, practice social distancing, avoid large in-person gatherings and limit travel as much as possible."

Hobby-Car Builder Seeks Tiny Victory In Hot Wheels Contest - Associated Press

Paul Kalenian is still playing around with Hot Wheels cars as he nears his 70th birthday.

Only it's not the same tiny toy that generations of children rolled across the floor. It's a self-constructed adult version that exudes both a modern and retro feel.

Kalenian, a retired manufacturer and Santa Fe resident, built the roadster and gave it a nickname — Lulu. It is a 1,530-pound, four-cylinder aluminum two-seater that looks like an adult version of a Hot Wheels car.

The car was one of 10 showing in a mid-May round of the Hot Wheels Legends Tour, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. That competition features original vehicles that capture the Hot Wheels spirit. The competition's guidelines include a provision the vehicles be "built, not bought."

The ultimate winner, to be determined in future competitive rounds later this year, will be inducted into the Hot Wheels Garage of Legends and become a miniature die-cast car for Hot Wheels buffs to play with and collect.

"Boys and toys, you know," Kalenian said of the continuing appeal of Hot Wheels, which originated in the late 1960s.

Kalenian didn't build Lulu over a nine-month period in 2018 and 2019 just to enter a contest. The inspiration was his deceased father, Aram, a mechanic who worked on airplane engines to help the war effort in the 1940s and later ran a machine shop in their home state of Massachusetts.

He remembers his father's penchant for tinkering and obsession with engines.

"My father would buy a car, and my mother, on Sunday, would think we were going to go on a ride," he recalled. "I knew we wouldn't. I knew we would be taking the car apart to see what was new in the car. He was very, very mechanical."

Kalenian said that he too is more fascinated with building than driving.

"I never watch car racing," he said. "I go to car shows to understand how cars are built. I love the nuts and bolts of it."

The "Lulu" name come from an odd expression Kalenian's dad used in frustration when a project went awry.

It cost Kalenian about $35,000 in parts to create Lulu. He used his father's lathe, milling machine and hand tools to craft the vehicle.

"I broke a lot of parts building her, not having done this before," he said. "I had no idea what I was doing."

In the beginning, he only drove the car as far as he knew he could push it home if the thing broke down.

Fellow car enthusiast Val Baehr said Kalenian builds rapidly and doesn't get discouraged by breakdowns.

"Another guy might have been devastated, ruined, to be towed," he said. "Paul just said, 'This happens, this is funny, this is part of the game.' "