THURS: Comment Period Extended For Drilling Plan Near Chaco, + More

May 21, 2020

US To Grant More Time To Consider New Mexico Drilling Plan - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says he'll extend the public comment period on a contested plan that will guide oil and gas drilling and other development in an area of New Mexico that includes a national park and locations important to Native American tribes.

A coalition of tribal leaders along with the state's congressional delegation, environmentalists and archaeologists had formally requested an extension weeks ago.

They've pointed to the disproportionate effect the coronavirus outbreak has had on the Navajo Nation and other Native American communities. Bernhardt posted on social media Thursday that he'll extend the comment period 120 days.

The deadline had been May 28. New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich said Thursday he's hopeful the extra time will result in meaningful consultation with tribes and ensure policymakers "get this right."

He called the area around Chaco Culture National Historical Park a precious landscape with irreplaceable resources.

Lawsuit Targets Fines As New Mexico Virus Cases Near 6,500Associated Press, Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico health officials are reporting 163 new coronavirus cases and 11 additional deaths.

The Health Department on Thursday said the statewide total of infections is nearing 6,500 while the death toll stands at 294.

The latest cases include 19 infections among state inmates who are being held at a lockup in Otero County, bringing the total there to 40. Dozens of federal inmates and immigration detainees also are infected.

State officials say progress has been made due to public health orders that have been in effect since March, but some business owners have filed a legal challenge over fines that have stemmed from the restrictions.

About a dozen business owners and companies are challenging the governor's authority to levy $5,000 fines for violating the public health orders.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the lawsuit names Lujan Grisham, Public Safety Secretary Mark Shea and Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel as defendants.

The Republican Party of New Mexico helped organize the litigation filed by Albuquerque attorney Carter Harrison IV on behalf of the businesses and their owners.

Sheriff Accused Of Interfering In SWAT Standoff Is ArrestedAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Authorities say a New Mexico sheriff suspected of showing up under the influence of alcohol to a SWAT standoff and trying to order officers away was arrested Thursday.

The Albuquerque Journal reports Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan initially refused to comply with the arrest and was taken from his office in handcuffs by Española police officers and Taos County deputies.

Court records show Lujan has been charged with resisting, evading or obstructing an officer, a felony. A criminal complaint says he smelled like alcohol and appeared to have trouble keeping his balance at the scene of the SWAT incident.

His attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment. 

US Lawmakers From Agricultural States Push For $1B In Aid - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Some New Mexico dairies have reported average monthly losses of more than a quarter-million dollars as fallout from the coronavirus mounts.

Ranchers have seen cattle prices plummet amid supply chain problems. And farmers are starting to worry about potential labor shortages when harvest time comes.

Congresswoman Xochitl Torres-Small is among a group of lawmakers from rural areas pushing legislation that calls for funneling as much as $1 billion in aid to states based on their contributions to regional and national food systems.

The Democrat says the southern half of the state alone accounts for $1.6 billion in agricultural revenue.

New Mexico Reports Year's First Human Case Of West Nile - Associated Press

New Mexico health officials say the state has its first human case of West Nile virus infection this year.

The Health Department reported Thursday that the patient is a San Juan County man in his 50s. He's recovering after being hospitalized. West Nile virus is a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that can sometimes be fatal.

The state has had West Nile cases every year since the virus was introduced to New Mexico in 2003. Last year, there were 40 cases, including four fatal cases.

In 2018, there were seven confirmed West Nile cases in the state, with one reported death.

Dark-Money Attack Ad Pastes Swastikas On House Candidate - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

It is unclear who is sponsoring incendiary new political attack ads against a former CIA operative who is a candidate for a northern New Mexico congressional seat.

The Washington, D.C.-based group behind the ads doesn't disclose donors and its only known activity is to denounce Valerie Plame as a "disgraced racist millionaire" in paid video spots on Facebook and Instagram in English and Spanish.

Plame has called the ads disgusting and says she has apologized and tried to atone for sharing on Twitter in 2017 an article with anti-Semitic expressions.

Ian Sugar, president of the the Alliance to Combat Extremism Fund, said in an email that the independent political expenditure group is supported by people who want to combat extremism in politics and rebuild trust in democracy.

He declined to name sponsors of the organization, return a phone call or answer further questions.

The group's attack ads hound Plame for allegedly being embraced by white supremacists and use an image of the candidate with swastikas imposed over her eyes.

Jon Soltz, chairman of the politically progressive advocacy group for military veterans VoteVets, denounced the use of Nazi imagery and called for the ads to be taken down.

Plame's secret identity was exposed shorty after her diplomat husband disputed U.S. intelligence used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion.

New Mexico Aims To Reopen Restaurants, Gyms, Malls June 1 - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set a June 1 target date to restart dine-in service at restaurants and reopen gyms, hair salons and shopping malls at limited capacity. 

Those businesses have been shuttered since March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

The governor and top health officials said Wednesday that a seven-day average of daily infections appears to have peaked around the start of May and that progress has been made on several fronts toward meeting the state's so-called gating criteria for reopening the economy. 

In an online news videoconference, they also cited an expansion in the number of daily tests to about 4,400 and complemented state residents for largely embracing a requirement that face masks be worn in public.

On Thursday the state announced 163 additional positive tests for COVID-19, bringing the total to 6,472. With 11 more deaths, the total number of people who have died from COVID-19 is 294.

Seven of those deaths were among residents in congregant living facilities and there are now 37 such facilities where state health officials have identified at least one resident and/or staff who have tested positive.

There are also 79 cases at the Otero County Prison Facility and 39 of those are among people held by federal agencies there. The Otero County Processing Center has 66 cases among people held by federal agencies.

Governor To Call Special Legislative Session Mid-June - Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she plans to call a special session of the legislature on June 18 to rewrite the state's spending plan for the current fiscal year that ends on June 30 and the next year starting July 1.

The governor, during an online news conference Wednesday, expressed optimism that the state can avoid any significant cuts to personnel and services in public education, health care, child protective services and public safety — though the state will have to "slow spending" and likely rein in previously approved infrastructure projects. 

Those calculations are based on the availability of federal coronavirus relief funds, state financial reserves and possible new withdrawals from an $18 billion state trust fund.

New Mexicans Reminded Not To Visit Neighboring States As COVID Cases Continue To Rise - Associated Press

New Mexico Health officials are reiterating warnings that the state’s residents should not travel to neighboring states that are moving more quickly to lift coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and gatherings.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Wednesday that New Mexico is "getting good control of the virus," even as health officials acknowledged that it is too soon to lift a lockdown in three hard-hit northwestern counties that account for the majority of infections and deaths in New Mexico.

New Mexico on Wednesday reported another 134 coronavirus cases, bringing the statewide total to more than 6,300. Health officials also reported seven new deaths, bringing that total to 283. More than 200 people are hospitalized, with several dozen of them on ventilators.

Officials also said during an online update that all of the staff members in the state Corrections Department have been tested and about one-quarter of inmates at state lockups have been tested. About two-thirds of the state's 33 counties also have met that testing goal within their jails.

Amazon, Walmart Can Sell Groceries To Food-Stamp Recipients - Associated Press

State health authorities are making it possible for New Mexico residents to spend food stamp benefits to purchase food online and reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission associated with local shopping trips.

The Human Services Department announced Wednesday in a news release that money from the federally subsidized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can be used for online food purchases at Walmart and Amazon using electronic benefit transfer cards.

Human Services Department Deputy Secretary Angela Medrano said in a statement that online purchases mean that more New Mexico residents can stay home and help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the state's application for online purchasing authorization earlier this month.

Police: Woman With COVID-19 Refused To Quarantine, Charged

Authorities say a New Mexico woman who tested positive for COVID-19 is facing charges after she refused to quarantine herself and visited a restaurant. 

KOAT-TV in Albuquerque reports prosecutors recently charged Gina Peterson with public nuisance and violating the state's health order. 

According to a criminal complaint, the 67-year-old Peterson walked into the Mama Bear's restaurant in Estancia on April 10, announced she had the coronavirus and refused to leave. 

Documents say she later came back and stayed in the women's restroom until the town's police chief removed her. 

Mama Bear's owner Kathy Swope says after the episode she closed the restaurant for 10 days and stopped takeout orders.

Peterson is believed to be the first known COVID-19 patient charged in New Mexico for not quarantining herself.

It was not known if she had an attorney.

Latina New Mexico Governor Calls VP Speculation 'Flattering' - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she will help make sure that racial- and ethnic-minority voters know about the potential benefits of electing Joe Biden as president. 

Asked Wednesday at an online news conference whether she would accept a potential invitation to run for vice president in November, Lujan Grisham said she is completely dedicated to her job as governor but also will provide specialized support in promoting Biden's presidential campaign among minority voters. 

New Mexico has the nation's highest proportion of Hispanic residents — many tracing their local ancestry to the era of Mexican and Spanish rule. Native Americans make up nearly 11% of the state population.

Lujan Grisham acknowledged the "flattering news" about the recruiting process for vice presidential contenders. 

Navajo Nation Casinos Remain Closed Amid COVID-19 Pandemic - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation's casinos in New Mexico and Arizona are staying closed until at least next month amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The decision is in line with the tribe's partial government closure and stay-at-home order that expires June 7. 

The tribe has three casinos in New Mexico near Farmington, Shiprock and Gallup, and one in Arizona east of Flagstaff. 

The casinos have been closed since mid-March. 

Casino officials say employees still are receiving paychecks and have access to mental health and other services.  

Meanwhile on Wednesday night, the Navajo Nation reported 100 new cases of coronavirus and two more deaths, pushing the total number of COVID-19 cases now to 4,253 with 146 known deaths.

New Mexico Hospital To Pay $98K To Settle Retaliation Claim Associated Press

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says a northern New Mexico hospital will pay $98,000 to settle a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by the agency.

The case against Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe was filed on behalf of an employee who claimed a supervisor subjected her to a hostile work environment because she is deaf.

The lawsuit accused the hospital of failing to provide reasonable accommodations for Asheley Coriz and firing her because of her disability and complaints she made about her supervisor's conduct.

The settlement includes back pay and damages. 

The decree also enjoins Christus St. Vincent from engaging in disability discrimination and retaliation and requires hospital officials to revise their equal employment opportunity and reasonable accommodation policies.