THURS: Anniversary Of Atomic Test Fuels Debate, COVID-19 Cases Pass 16,000, + More

Jul 16, 2020

Anniversary Of World's 1st Atomic Test Fuels Nuclear Debate - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The nation's top nuclear security official is in New Mexico to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the world's first atomic explosion.

The test is both revered for the scientific advancements it helped to usher in and vilified for the moral and diplomatic implications that still linger in its wake.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, says the Trinity Test in 1945 helped to avert wars and saved untold millions of lives over the years through advancements in nuclear medicine and science.

For others, the atomic test in southern New Mexico and subsequent tests elsewhere have left a painful legacy. 

From uranium miners, truck drivers and government workers to those living in communities near test sites, thousands were exposed over the years to radiation that resulted in cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation say radiation exposure has disproportionately affected minority communities, including those in the shadow of that first test.

The lawmakers have been pushing to expand the federal government's compensation program to include "downwinders" in Tularosa Basin. The program currently covers workers who became sick as a result of the radiation hazards of their jobs and those who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site.

Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, says many people who lived near the Trinity Site weren't told it involved an atomic weapon until the U.S. dropped bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II ended.

Los Alamos is preparing to resume production of the plutonium cores that serve as triggers for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

There also are plans by a private company to build an interim storage site in southern New Mexico for spent nuclear fuel from power plants across the U.S., and there has long been talk about the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad possibly taking on more waste.

Ex-New Mexico Officer Facing Murder Charge Over Chokehold - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

A former police officer in New Mexico has been charged with second-degree murder after authorities say he killed a Latino detainee he had placed in a chokehold.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas said Thursday he has filed the charge against former Las Cruces police Officer Christopher Smelser in the death of Antonio Valenzuela.

Police say Smelser applied the chokehold after a foot chase in February when Valenzuela fled during a traffic stop.

Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene. The coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries.

Smelser was initially charged with manslaughter and later fired.

Smelser's attorney, Amy L. Orlando, did not immediately return a phone message.

The revised charge came as Black Lives Matter protests have swept the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Demonstrators have put pressure on police departments to change policies involving the use of force and interactions with Black, Latino and Native American residents.

The death of Valenzuela generated similar protests in Las Cruces, just 46 miles north of the Mexico border. Family members of Valenzuela had called for an upgraded charge against Smelser.

Some protesters said the killing illustrated the violence some Mexican Americans face from police and compared it to Floyd's killing.

Last month, Balderas called for uniform use of force policies that would be codified in state law to require body cameras and ban chokeholds, among other things.

As chairman of the state Law Enforcement Academy Board, Balderas in 2016 called on a committee of experts to review how each of New Mexico's municipal and county law enforcement agencies investigates the use of deadly force by their own officers.

At the time, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the move seemed to offer the prospect of establishing a statewide standard for handling shootings by police.

A report with recommendations was drafted in 2017 but failed to gain traction as many police departments said a year later that they hadn't even received the policy recommendations.

Arizona COVID-19 Patients Being Sent To New MexicoAssociated Press

People who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Arizona are being transferred to New Mexico hospitals because of staffing shortages and a lack of bed space, under a federal law that requires hospitals to accept patients from neighboring states if beds are available.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the transfer of out-of-state patients poses challenges as some New Mexico facilities are at or nearing capacity levels.

New Mexico has fewer hospital beds per capita than many other states, she said. Lujan Grisham also suggested that the state would not reject such patients under the law, even if it could.

The University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare Services have accepted Arizona patients for treatment, including 96 patients from the Navajo Nation. It is unclear how many Arizona patients have been transferred to New Mexico.

The New Mexico Department of Health has confirmed the transfer of patients. But the department said the number of patients is not large enough to affect New Mexico's ability to provide for its own residents.

The number of occupied ICU beds at seven designated New Mexico hospitals this week was at 256, below the maximum capacity of 614 beds, according to department data.

However, two Presbyterian hospitals are near capacity and have activated their disaster plans, but not because of COVID-19, said Clay Holderman, Presbyterian's chief operating officer. Those patients have a range of other ailments that have been worsened by a lack of preventive care.

Albuquerque Public Schools Lays Out Hybrid Learning PlanAssociated Press

The Albuquerque Public Schools board has announced a hybrid learning plan for the upcoming school year where students are expected to begin classes online Aug. 12 and then switch to in-person learning Sept. 8. Teachers and staff are expected to return Aug. 5.

The district plans to provide electronic devices for all K-12 students who need them, and it will supply masks, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.

The plan will next head to the state Public Education Department for approval, but it could still change depending on the governor's public health order.

The Albuquerque Journal reported when schools open, the plan is to divide students into two cohorts so they can attend on a rotating schedule.

However, Acting Superintendent Scott Elder said parents are split over the model and they’re concerned about finding childcare.

New Mexico reported another 300 COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total to 16,138.

The increase was led by Bernalillo County with 103 cases and Doña County with 39 cases.

There were also five additional deaths, bringing that total to 562.

Michael Vigil Takes Oath As New Mexico Chief JusticeAssociated Press

Justice Michael Vigil has taken over as New Mexico's top judge.

Vigil was sworn in for a two-year-term as chief justice on Wednesday after he was selected by his colleagues on the five-member New Mexico Supreme Court.

The chief justice presides over Supreme Court hearings and is the top administrative officer for the New Mexico judiciary, including personnel and budgets.

He says in a statement that his first priority is to work on keeping courts open during the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping courthouse staff and visitors healthy.

Vigil joined the high court in 2018 after 15 years as a judge of the state Court of Appeals. Vigil graduated from Santa Fe High School, the College of Santa Fe and Georgetown University Law Center.

He takes over as chief justice from Judith Nakamura, who remains on the court but plans to retire later this year.

Besieged New Mexico Sheriff Eyes Smartphones As Body Cams - Associated Press, Albuquerque Journal

A much-criticized New Mexico sheriff who has led an office facing racial profiling lawsuits and has refused to force deputies to wear body cameras says his office will instead use smartphones. 

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales told reporters Wednesday he is looking to partner with a company so deputies can put smartphones in their vests and record video. 

Last week, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill requiring all law enforcement to wear body cameras. But Gonzales calls the current technology archaic and says it's too costly. 

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, burst out laughing when told by an Albuquerque Journal reporter of the sheriff's plan.

"So I'm pleased to see the sheriff is finally willing to adopt one of the tools of modern law enforcement," Cervantes told the newspaper. "We passed a law that requires body-worn cameras, so if he wants to do it by duct-taping iPhones on his officers' chests, that's his prerogative, although I think it creates the possibility of becoming a laughingstock."

Gonzales has faced criticism before for refusing to force deputies to wear body cams amid a string of deputy shootings.

New Mexico Ties Previous Daily Record For Coronavirus Infections KUNM, Albuquerque Journal

State health officials announced 330 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, including 169 cases in the state’s most populous county, Bernalillo.

That number tied the record for the number of daily cases since the pandemic began. The Albuquerque Journal reported the state hit the 330 mark on July 7, but that was largely due to an outbreak at the Otero County prison.

That facility had just one new case Wednesday but has a total of 734 people who are infected.

There were also six additional deaths, including a male in his 30s in Sandoval County who had underlying conditions, bringing that total to 557. Doña Ana County had the second highest number of cases at 35, followed by Santa Fe County with 29.

New Mexico has now had a total of 15,841 COVID-19 cases.

University, Public Schools Announce Fall Semester Plans Associated Press

The University of New Mexico has announced it's reopening plan for the fall semester with coursework offered both in-person and remotely starting in August.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that university officials announced the plan at a Board of Regents meeting Tuesday. The fall semester is set to begin Aug. 17.

Officials say thermometers will be included in welcome kits for students and any confirmed COVID-19 cases will be addressed with cleaning and contact tracing. Masks and social distancing measures will also be required.

Face-to-face instruction is expected to end before Thanksgiving break, and students will complete the remaining semester and take finals online. UNM also plans to hire contact tracers supervised by the Department of Health.

Public school districts including West Las Vegas, Los Alamos and Las Cruces are opting for virtual classes to start the fall semester. Santa Fe schools are considering a similar plan.

Auditor Seeks Probe Of Albuquerque Police Overtime 'Abuse' - Associated Press

New Mexico's state auditor is seeking an investigation into what he calls potential criminal activity around overtime abuse within the Albuquerque Police Department. 

State Auditor Brian Colón said Wednesday he is asking New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to join him in a probe of the state's largest police department. 

Without giving details, Colón also said he has designated the city of Albuquerque for a special audit to examine the allegations

of overtime abuse and policy violations. 

"The city of Albuquerque has continually failed to hold APD accountable," Colón said.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Albuquerque police, did not immediately return an email.

Matt Ross, a spokesman in Mayor Tom Keller's office, said COVID-19 created a need for extra officer hours and exacerbated longstanding overtime problems with the department. 

Records show that some Albuquerque officers who collect overtime pay are among the highest-paid city employees. Critics have charged that these officers abuse the overtime system and take the hours from others.

Low Flows Of Rio Grande Threaten Diversions Near Santa Fe - Associated Press

Water managers in Santa Fe say expected low flows along the Rio Grande will likely force the temporary shutdown of diversions as early as this weekend. 

Officials with the Buckman diversion project say the river's flow is expected to drop rapidly once the last of the water stored for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande Valley has been used. 

They say river conditions at the Buckman diversion location north of Santa Fe will be monitored closely. 

If flows reach or go below 300 cubic feet per second, diversions will be temporarily halted.

Aside from river diversions, Santa Fe also gets drinking water from wells and a treatment plant that accesses water from the Santa Fe watershed's reservoirs. Officials say these other sources will continue to meet the city's needs. 

Since the Buckman diversion project came online in 2011 the wells have been rested and the aquifers have seen substantial recovery. 

Officials say they're ready to fill the gap if surface water supplies aren't available.

New Mexico Inmates Riot Amid Demands For More Virus TestingAssociated Press

Officials say a riot at a northwestern New Mexico jail sparked by demands for more COVID-19 testing and warm meals left one inmate injured and damage to the jail.  

Authorities say the disturbance at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in Farmington began Monday after 35 inmates barricaded themselves and started a fire. Officials say the inmates also were armed with shards of porcelain from broken toilets.

According to San Juan County authorities, inmates started demanding Sunday afternoon to speak to an administrator about their concerns for more hot meals and more coronavirus testing.

Investigators said inmates also wrapped books and magazines around their torsos as makeshift body armor and used a bunk as a battering ram before the riot was put down by multiple agencies called to the scene.

One injured inmate was taken to a nearby hospital, authorities said. His injuries are unknown.

Officials said there were 345 people in custody at the San Juan County jail on Monday, and 147 have tested positive for coronavirus. The positive detainees have been quarantined in five pods.

The jail is near the Navajo Nation, where the coronavirus has especially hit residents hard with more than 8,000 cases.

New Mexico High School To Drop Spanish Conquistador Name Associated Press

A New Mexico high school named after a Spanish conquistador will be renamed following nationwide protests against racial injustice.

The Las Cruces School Board voted Tuesday to drop the name of Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar from a high school. Indigenous leaders convinced another New Mexico county to remove its statue of Oñate.

The name change followed school district surveys that showed strong opposition from the area's majority Mexican American community for renaming the school.

New Mexico Pueblo members have long seen Oñate has a brutal leader who forced Native Americans into slavery.

Some Hispanics who trace their lineage to the early Spanish settlers say removing the likenesses of Oñate and others amounts to erasing history — a complicated history both marred by atrocities against Indigenous people and marked by the arduous journeys that many families made for the promise of a new life or to escape persecution in Spain.

Spanish rule over the New Mexico territory lasted for about two centuries until the area briefly became part of the Republic of Mexico before it was taken over by the U.S.

Some scholars say the phenomenon of conquistador commemoration is linked to efforts that originated more than a century ago as Hispanics tried to convince white members of Congress that New Mexico should become a state.

During the 19th Century, white people moved into the territory and held racist views toward the region's Native American and Mexican American population, according to John Nieto-Phillips, author of "The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s."

As a result, Nieto-Phillips said some Hispanics in the region took on a solely Spanish American identity over their mixed heritage to embrace whiteness amid the racist eugenics movement.

Atomic Anniversary Brings Us Nuclear Official To New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration is visiting New Mexico this week as part of a tour of the nation's nuclear security operations. The visit coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Trinity Test, which marked the world's first atomic explosion in 1945.

Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty is scheduled to lead a commemoration Thursday at the historic V-Site at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where early testing and some assembly of the atomic bomb took place.

Gordon-Hagerty has been spearheading the federal government's recent efforts to ramp up production of the plutonium triggers for the nation's aging nuclear stockpile.

Los Alamos is facing of a 2026 deadline to begin producing at least 30 of the plutonium cores a year — a mission that has the support of the most senior Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation as the work is expected to bring jobs and billions of federal dollars to update buildings or construct new factories.

The effort has drawn much criticism from watchdog groups that long have been concerned about the lab's safety record, missed deadlines, repeated cost overruns and the pace of cleaning up contamination resulting from decades of bomb making and nuclear research.

Disney Parks Executive To Take CEO Role At Virgin GalacticAssociated Press

Disney Parks International President Michael Colglazier has been appointed chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic as the space tourism company prepares for commercial service.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said Wednesday that Colglazier's career at one of the world's leading customer experience brands is a natural fit.

Current CEO George Whitesides will become chief space officer and focus on future business opportunities, including point-to-point hypersonic travel and orbital space travel.

Virgin Galactic is currently in a flight test program aimed at launching paying customers on suborbital flights into the lower reaches of space over New Mexico.

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