TUES: Los Alamos National Laboratory Investigating Breach In Plutonium Facility, + More

Jul 7, 2020

US Nuclear Lab Investigates Breach At Plutonium Facility - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Officials at one of the nation's premier nuclear labs are investigating the potential exposure of employees to plutonium.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has confirmed that 15 workers are being evaluated after a breach involving a gloved box that was being used to handle the material.

The incident happened in June. According to the report, air monitors sounded when an employee pulled out of the glovebox gloves after weighing and packaging plutonium oxide powder.

The lab says the area inside the plutonium facility was secured and there's no risk to public health or safety.

The lab is preparing to resume and ramp up production of the plutonium cores used to trigger nuclear weapons. It's facing of a 2026 deadline to begin producing at least 30 cores a year.

 

States Sue US Department Over Virus Relief Funds For Schools - By Olga R. Rodriguez and David Eggert, Associated Press

California, Michigan and three other states, including New Mexico, are suing the U.S. Department of Education over pandemic relief funds.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, the attorneys general of California and Michigan say the department run by Secretary Betsy DeVos is attempting to take pandemic relief funds away from K-12 public schools and divert them to private schools.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the department unlawfully interpreted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which established guidelines to distribute $13.2 billion in aid to schools nationwide using Title I funds earmarked for students from low-income families.

The department's interpretation will instead allow school districts to get funds based on their total student population.

The lawsuit states that is leading tens of millions of dollars to be diverted from public schools in the poorest districts to private institutions with tuition similar to that charged by private colleges.

DeVos previously said the funding is meant to support all students.

New Mexico Ads Ask Visitors To Comply With Virus SafeguardsAssociated Press

The New Mexico State Tourism Department has published advertisements informing residents of neighboring states that visitors should comply with its rules regarding masks and travel.

The advertisements in six newspapers in Texas and Arizona include letters explaining New Mexico has different rules than the other two states.

The tourism department spent $67,000 on the full-page advertisements in major newspapers in Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona and in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas in Texas.

Tourism department spokesman Cody Johnson says the two states were targeted because they recently have experienced surges in COVID-19 infection rates.

Health officials on Tuesday reported an additional 221 positive cases, bringing the statewide total to 13,727 since the pandemic began.

There were also four additional deaths, bringing the total to 519.

New Mexico Offers $400 Million In Small-Business Loans - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed legislation to offer more than $400 million in low-interest loans to small businesses that have taken a financial hit during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday's approval allows New Mexico businesses to borrow up to $75,000 each from the state's severance tax permanent fund.

Interest from the $5 billion trust fund is traditionally used to retire debt on public construction projects.

Lujan Grisham says the loan program will use the state's wealth to revive crucial small businesses.

The initial repayment period is three years, with a possible three-year extension.

The bill also freezes unemployment insurance rate increases, even as money dwindles in the state's trust fund for income support benefits to the unemployed. The fund can borrow without interest from the federal government when its balance is exhausted.

Health officials on Tuesday reported an additional 221 positive cases, bringing the statewide total to 13,727 since the pandemic began.

New Mexico Issues Heat Alert As Triple Digits ApproachAssociated Press

Health officials are warning people across New Mexico to be mindful of heat-related illness as the state prepares for a few days of triple digit temperatures.

The Health Department on Tuesday issued an alert, saying the extreme heat is expected to last through the weekend in most of the state.

Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel also used the forecast to remind parents not to leave children or pets in hots cars.

The symptoms of heat stress can include dizziness, nausea, cramping and weakness and can progress to heat stroke and death if left unchecked.

US Nuclear Lab Investigates Breach At Plutonium Facility - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Officials at one of the nation's premier nuclear labs are investigating the potential exposure of employees to plutonium.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has confirmed that 15 workers are being evaluated after a breach involving a gloved box that was being used to handle the material.

The incident happened in June. According to the report, air monitors sounded when an employee pulled out of the glovebox gloves after weighing and packaging plutonium oxide powder.

The lab says the area inside the plutonium facility was secured and there's no risk to public health or safety.

The lab is preparing to resume and ramp up production of the plutonium cores used to trigger nuclear weapons. It's facing of a 2026 deadline to begin producing at least 30 cores a year.

Pecos Schools Names Interim Superintendent Permanent ChiefAssociated Press

Pecos Independent School has offered interim superintendent Debra Sena Holton a two-year contract to name her permanent school chief.

The Las Vegas Optic reports the Pecos School Board recently voted to give Sena Holton the contract beginning July 1. Sena Holton had been the interim superintendent since March 17, the day after campuses closed across the state.

Board President Darlene Ortiz says Sena Holton was one of three top applicants considered by the board.

Sena Holton's appointment to the position comes after former Pecos Superintendent Fred Trujillo left to take the superintendent position in the Espanola Public Schools District. 

State COVID-19 Cases Top 200 For Fifth Straight Day Albuquerque Journal, KUNM

State health officials reported 253 additional COVID-19 cases Monday, the fifth day in a row where cases have exceeded 200.

The Albuquerque Journal reported it was one of the highest numbers of daily cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Doña Ana County led the way with 85 new cases, followed by Bernalillo County with 60. The total number of cases is now 13,507.

There are also two new cases among state inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility in southern New Mexico. Total cases among state and federal detainees in that center are now 725.

Two more people died as well, bringing the total number of New Mexico deaths related to COVID-19 to 515.

Last week Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham added a $100 fine to an existing public health order to wear face masks in public spaces. She also warned that the state’s partial reopening could be rolled back if numbers did not improve.

Opera, Balloon Fiesta Among Businesses Getting Virus Loans - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The Santa Fe Opera, the Meow Wolf art collaborative and the non-profit organization that puts on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta are among the New Mexico businesses receiving loans from the U.S. government as part of the massive effort to support the economy amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

The Treasury Department on Monday identified the borrowers that got more than $150,000 each through the Paycheck Protection Program. 

The list in New Mexico also includes tribal casinos, private schools in Albuquerque, restaurants, breweries, oil companies, churches, a few rural hospitals and a consulting company co-founded by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham more than a decade ago.

Also on the list are institutions that rely on tourists, such as the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Non-profit foundations that support New Mexico museums also received loans.

Across the country, the government handed out $521 billion through the Paycheck Protection Program, a crucial piece of its $2 trillion rescue package. The loans can be forgiven if the businesses mostly use the money to continue paying workers. 

The program was recently extended to Aug. 8.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat, said Monday the program has been a lifeline for businesses in the state. He urged New Mexicans to take advantage of the extension.

New Mexico State University Gets Grant To Map Water Rights - Associated Press

New Mexico State University is working to digitize the state's water rights database and develop maps that will help with management of limited groundwater and surface water resources. 

The work is being funded with a grant from the Office of the State Engineer. 

The completion date is set for later this year.

Some of the maps being used by state agency are 100 years old and all are in paper format. 

Associate geography professor Christopher Brown says proper management of New Mexico's water resources is not only important to the economy, but also the quality of life of residents.

Brown said the work involves transferring digital scans of the paper survey maps from the state agency to the university and using geo-referencing tools to ensure the images are located in the proper space. The resulting maps are then reviewed by the agency before being joined in a seamless layer of data. 

Creating a geo-referenced and digital library will help the state better archive and protect water rights documentation and help with the allocation of water rights in the future, officials said.

New Mexico Highlands Reports Enrollment Jump Amid COVID-19 - Associated Press

New Mexico Highlands University says its summer enrollment has increased 3% despite the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Strategic enrollment management director Benito Pacheco said Monday the total summer 2020 enrollment at Highlands is at 1,095 compared to 1,066 in last summer. 

Officials credit a collaborative and targeted effort by many of the school's offices. 

Pacheco says officials used Zoom video conferencing so a prospective student could click on a link to meet online with a success coach face to face, much as if they were walking into an office.

He says Highlands admissions and recruitment staff also placed 5,000 phone calls to prospective and current students.

 

Pecos Schools Names Interim Superintendent Permanent Chief - Las Vegas Optic, Associated Press

Pecos Independent School has offered interim superintendent Debra Sena Holton a two-year contract to name her permanent school chief. 

The Las Vegas Optic reports the Pecos School Board recently voted to give Sena Holton the contract beginning July 1. 

Sena Holton had been the interim superintendent since March 17, the day after campuses closed across the state. 

Board President Darlene Ortiz says Sena Holton was one of three top applicants considered by the board. 

Sena Holton's appointment to the position comes after former Pecos Superintendent Fred Trujillo left to take the superintendent position in the Española Public Schools District. 

New Mexico City Frustrated By Bail Reforms, Repeat CriminalsLovington Daily Leader, Associated Press

Authorities in one southeastern New Mexico community are frustrated with the state's bail reforms, saying the justice system is now failing Lovington by releasing repeat offenders from custody.

Police officers tell the Lovington Daily Leader they know many offenders on a first-name basis because they have to arrest them over and over — often for the same charges but different victims.

Prosecutors and law enforcement say some crimes are committed by people with mental health issues and that officers have been forced to take on the role of social workers.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2016 cleared the way for judges to detain defendants facing felony charges in jail pending trial if prosecutors prove by clear and convincing evidence that the individual is so dangerous that nothing other than detention will reasonably protect public safety.

The change also was aimed at releasing low-risk defendants who otherwise may have remained in jail because they did not have the means to make bond.

Prosecutors, public defenders, judges and law enforcement all have voiced concerns with different aspects of the system in recent years.

Navajo Nation Reports 38 More Coronavirus Cases Plus 1 Death Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 38 additional cases of COVID-19 and one more known death.

Tribal Department of Health officials say 7,840 people on the vast reservation that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have tested positive with 378 known deaths as of Sunday night.

Health officials also say reports from all 12 health care facilities on and near the Navajo Nation indicate 58,768 people have been tested and 5,581 have recovered from COVID-19.

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

Tribal police and the New Mexico National Guard are enforcing weekend curfews on the Navajo Nation as officials continue to try to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough for most people.  

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