WED: Spaceport America Vets Capital Projects Amid Investigation, + More

Sep 2, 2020

Spaceport America Vets Capital Projects Amid Investigation - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The interim leader of Spaceport America says an investigation into the conduct of the organization's chief executive officer is ongoing and that initial findings are expected in the coming weeks.

Scott McLaughlin testified Wednesday before a New Mexico legislative panel, saying the recent shakeup stemming from a whistleblower complaint filed in June has left the spaceport in a difficult situation.

Dan Hicks was placed on administrative leave after being accused of circumventing internal financial controls and accounting procedures.

State auditors are reviewing the spaceport's finances, and McLaughlin said all capital projects also are being assessed due to the open investigation.

The state Economic Development Department is paying an outside accounting firm to review procurement procedures as well as agreements governing gross receipts tax and the use of revenue generated by the tax.

Spaceport America is billed as the world's first installation built specifically for the burgeoning commercial space industry to ferry paying passengers to the lower fringes of space and launch other payloads into orbit.

While commercial flights have yet to begin, Virgin Galactic — the spaceport's anchor tenant — is preparing for a final round of test flights in the coming months.

Lawmakers didn't ask any questions about the investigation but peppered McLaughlin about the potential for New Mexico to finally see a return on the investments in the spaceport that have been made by the state and the counties of Doña Ana and Sierra.

McLaughlin said it has been a challenging year since many vertical rocket launches and the annual collegiate-level rocket competition hosted by the spaceport had to be scrubbed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemic Afflicts Impoverished Areas Of New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A top state health official is warning that COVID-19 infections are far more prevalent in low-income areas of the New Mexico, potentially straining Medicaid health care.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Wednesday that an analysis of infection rates by census tract shows that highly impoverished areas have infection rates seven times higher than the most affluent zones.

Scrase and Children Youth and Families Secretary Brian Blalock gave a briefing Wednesday on public health trends and the state's coronavirus response.

State health officials are wary that festivities over the Labor Day holiday weekend could lead to renewed surges in COVID-19 infections.

About 38% of New Mexico residents are enrolled in federally subsidized Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program for people living in poverty or on the cusp.

The state recently relaxed its stay-at-home order to allow public gatherings of 10 people. But masks are a must in public, overnight camping remains off limits at state parks and most interstate travelers are required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. A small share of the state's elementary school students return next week to classrooms on a part-time, rotating basis.

Scrase urged people to reschedule medical appointments and diagnostic tests that were suspended at the outset of the virus outbreak, citing a decrease in the number of colonoscopies as a proxy for crucial, deferred procedures.

State health authorities also are urging people to get flu vaccines as early as possible to clear the way for the distribution and application of coronavirus vaccine shots.

Navajo Nation To Run Partial Weekend Lockdown Into SeptemberAssociated Press

Navajo Nation officials are extending partial weekend lockdowns and daily curfews through September to help control the spread of the coronavirus on the tribe's reservation.

The lockdowns on the vast reservation in the Four Corners region start at 9 p.m. Saturday and run until 5 a.m. Monday. Daily curfews run from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

President Jonathan Nez says residents still have time on Saturdays to prepare for the winter season by gathering firewood, food, water and other supplies.

But the public should avoid traveling to nearby towns and cities on the weekends. Travel increases the risk of infection and bringing it home to family.

US Officials Say No New Environmental Study For Nuclear Lab – Associated Press

The National Nuclear Security Administration says it doesn't need to do an additional environmental review for Los Alamos National Laboratory before it begins producing key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The agency says it already has sufficient information. Watchdog groups are concerned about Tuesday's announcement, saying the plutonium pit production work will amount to a vast expansion of the lab's nuclear mission and that more analysis should be done.

The government has set a deadline to produce 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030. The work will be shared between Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The work is expected to bring jobs and billions of federal dollars to update buildings or construct new factories.

The National Nuclear Security Administration on Tuesday released its final supplemental analysis of a site-wide environmental impact statement done for the lab more than a decade ago. The agency concluded that no further analysis is required.

Critics have pushed for a new environmental impact statement, saying the previous 2008 analysis didn't consider a number of effects related to increased production, such as the pressure it puts on infrastructure, roads and the housing market.

Drone Damaged After Going Off Runway At New Mexico Air BaseAssociated Press

An Air Force attack drone was damaged Wednesday when it went off a runway during takeoff at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico, the military said.

The remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 49th Wing was the only aircraft involved, base officials said in a statement.

A board of Air Force officers will investigate the accident to determine the cause, the statement said.

The base is 79 miles north of El Paso, Texas.

New Mexico Reports 154 New COVID-19 Cases And Three More DeathsKUNM

New Mexico health officials reported 154 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, bringing the total since the pandemic to 25,612.

Doña Ana County had the most new cases at 33, followed by Bernalillo County in central New Mexico and Chaves County in southern New Mexico, each with 24 cases.

There were also three more deaths. All three people had underlying conditions. That brings the total number of deaths related to COVID-19 in New Mexico to 790.

The highest number of cases continues to be among people in their 20s, followed by those in their 30s. That’s according to the New Mexico Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard.

Native Americans make up 32% of cases and Hispanics or Latinos make up 44%. Anglos make up 14% of cases.

Santa Fe, Mckinley County Win Larger Federal Relief Grants - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Santa Fe area emerged as a major beneficiary of federal relief funds for local government, as the state of New Mexico assigned nearly $100 million to towns, cities and counties to offset spending on the pandemic response. 

The city of Santa Fe was awarded $17.6 million in possible reimbursements and Santa Fe County can receive up to $10.5 — accounting together for 28% of direct grant awards announced on Tuesday. 

McKinley County, which has the state's highest tally of COVID-19 infections per capita, received an outsized direct grant award of $16.1 million.

Details of grant applications were unavailable.

"Every applicant received funding. No one gets left behind," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news release that listed 83 recipients.

New Mexico's largest city and county — Albuquerque and surrounding Bernalillo County — previously received direct relief funds from the federal government and were not included.

The Department of Finance and Administration also announced the distribution of $50 million in small business grant funds to municipal governments and counties. Local governments in turn will distribute that money to hard-hit businesses with 50 or fewer employees and annual revenues of $2 million or less prior to the pandemic.

Finance and Administration Secretary Debbie Romero said the criteria was designed to reach businesses that may have missed out on earlier federal relief through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

The top conduits for the small business grants include the city of Las Cruces, with a $5.4 million allocation, and Clovis, with $4.3 million.

Details of individual applications for relief funding and business grants were not immediately available Tuesday. 


New Mexico Cites Natural Gas Plants For Excess Air Pollution - Associated Press

New Mexico environmental regulators have issued citations against natural gas processing plants on allegations they vastly exceeded permitted air pollution limits while burning off excess natural gas. 

The New Mexico Environment Department on Tuesday announced compliance orders against plant operators DCP Operating Company and Energy Transfer Partners with potential fines in excess of $7 million. 

The agency says that four facilities operated by DCP in southeast New Mexico were cited for emitting more than 1.6 million pounds of pollutants between May 2017 and August 2018. Energy Transfer Partners was cited for emitting approximately 3.1 million pounds of pollutants in excess of permit limits at one plant between January 2017 and August 2018.

The agency said the excess pollutants may contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and other hazardous air-quality conditions.

Study Finds Cancer Cases Likely In Those Exposed To Atomic Test - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

After years of study, the National Cancer Institute says some people probably got cancer from the radioactive fallout that wafted across New Mexico after the U.S. government detonated the first atomic bomb in 1945.

However, the exact number is unknown.

The institute disclosed its conclusions in a series of scientific papers on radiation doses and cancer risks resulting from the Trinity Test, which marked a key point in the once-secret Manhattan Project. The findings were  published in the journal Health Physics.

Researchers say it's impossible to know with certainty if New Mexico's cancer rates changed in the first decades after the test given the lack of comprehensive data. They did conclude that whatever excess cancer cases did arise would have been limited to those alive at the time of the blast and that effects on those born in subsequent years would be too small to expect any additional cases.

The researchers suggested in their work that exposure levels would have been substantially higher than naturally occurring background radiation only in the areas immediately downwind of the detonation site. They listed five counties — Guadalupe, Lincoln, San Miguel, Socorro, and Torrance — based on a map of the fallout pattern developed decades earlier using measurements of radiation collected by government scientists in the immediate days after the test. People exposed to fallout are known as downwinders.

The latest research also notes that most of New Mexico's exposure from Trinity was small compared to the subsequent radiation exposure from the Nevada Test Site and fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests elsewhere.

Government scientists never discounted the potential for fallout before moving ahead with the Trinity Test. The detonation changed the course of history, ensuring the end of World War II and marking the dawn of the atomic age.

In the 75 years since then, some residents have been fighting for recognition from the government, saying generations of people have been dealing with effects from the blast.

The institute's research comes as Congress considers legislation that would include the downwinders in New Mexico in a federal compensation program for people exposed to radiation released during atmospheric tests or employees in the uranium industry.

New Mexico Surpasses Colorado In Per-Capita Virus Cases Associated Press

New Mexico health officials reported 110 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 and eight related deaths on Tuesday.

The Doña Ana County area that includes Las Cruces led all counties in terms of new infections with 32 cases. Cumulative statewide deaths from the coronavirus now number 787.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Mexico has decreased over the past two weeks, going from 156 new cases per day on Aug. 17 to 127 new cases per day on Aug. 31. That's according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

The rolling average of statewide daily deaths fell during the same period from 4.1 to 3.6.

Comparing seven-day averages of new cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in test results.

New Mexico confirmed 88 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, far fewer than neighboring Texas with 250 but more than Colorado's 71.

New Mexico Agency Says It Is Unable To Move Despite MandateAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has been asked to vacate its office space by Sept. 30, but a top official says it is ill-prepared to do so.

The Albuquerque Journal reports officials had previously issued an order for the commission to vacate its building in Santa Fe by June in order to make room for the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department. That order was later extended to September.

PRC chief of staff Jason Montoya says the office is in no position to move due to a lack of funds. The commission is seeking either a grant or loan from the state in order to find new housing.

The PRC has called the PERA Building home for more than two decades.