Over the past two decades, southeastern New Mexico has embraced an industry many other communities throughout the country have rejected. Following more than 20 years of proposals, studies and battles, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) opened near Carlsbad in 1999 to store nuclear weapons waste underground. Then, in 2010, a uranium enrichment plant opened in Eunice. And boosters have floated other ideas, including a nuclear waste reprocessing plant. Most recently, a group of local politicians and businessmen invited a private company to store high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants on a thousand acres between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
As the attention of legislators and residents has focused on plans by a private company to store high-level commercial nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico, changes could be afoot in how transuranic waste from nuclear weapons is managed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. On June 1, the state of New Mexico is scheduled to decide whether to approve a permit modification request from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the private company that operates WIPP. The modification to the permit would create new definitions—describing two different methods for reporting waste disposal volumes—within the permit. If accepted by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), it would remove all references to the original language—based on the federal Land Withdrawal Act—limiting the facility’s total disposal capacity to 6.2 million cubic feet. And it would allow the federal government to track waste differently than in the past.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the budget passed earlier this year by state legislators. But she refused to sign a bill that would have reinstated state tax credits for solar. That bill reinstated a tax credit that had expired after a decade, one that had spurred the deployment of 220 million BTUs per day of solar heating energy and 40 megawatts of solar electricity. The tax credit would have given people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. Previously, Martinez has praised the state’s “all of the above” energy resources, but by declining to sign the solar tax credit bill, she effectively vetoed it, but without having to explain why. This week, there’s an interesting water case before the Second District Court, over a private company’s plans to drill for groundwater in the Sandia Mountains.
On Wednesday September 20 at the United Nations, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will open for signature. For signatories, this treaty prohibits nuclear weapons altogether. Its explicit goal is a universal norm against all forms of participation in the nuclear weapons industry. Designing, testing, producing, possessing, threatening with, deploying, and using nuclear weapons are to be banned. Crucially, assistance or encouragement in these illegal acts will also be banned, as will stationing of nuclear weapons, both of which impact U.S. nuclear alliances including NATO.
As we reported on Friday, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the Next Generation Science Standards Act. In her message, she wrote that “the Public Education Department has already been working diligently to route the standards through the appropriate vetting process.” The governor also argued the standards don’t belong in statute because it would “make it more difficult to update science standards in response to scientific advancement in the future.”
As Matt Grubs wrote in the Santa Fe Reporter, that bill would have required the state to adopt updated, nationally-vetted benchmarks for teaching science in public schools. As Grubs wrote last week: Supporters, like bill sponsor Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, agree that it’s better to let the PED change standards administratively. But no one from the state’s education agency has explained the delay in putting the NGSS into place. In 18 other states and Washington, DC, the most controversial issues surrounding Next Gen adoption have been human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution.
I’ll admit I took a break from the news over the holiday—a break from writing it and a break from reading it. Now that I’m catching up on what happened around New Mexico, I thought I’d share some of the most important environment news from the past couple of weeks. Because maybe some of these things slipped through your news feed, too. Jobs, jobs, jobs
The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported that Halliburton announced that it’s looking for 200 workers in the Permian Basin as it anticipates ramping up production. According to the story, the energy industry is planning to expand drilling in southern New Mexico and Texas, thanks to a rise in oil prices and increased political support.
After more than a decade of freelancing for magazines, newspapers and radio, I’m settling down. Beginning this month, readers of NM Political Report will start seeing more news stories about water, environmental justice, public lands, wildlife, nuclear waste, climate change and energy. As much as I have loved working with different editors and teams over the years, I am relieved that NM Political Report has decided it needs to be covering statewide environmental issues regularly. During a time when issues like climate change, water and environmental regulations have become increasingly important, newspapers nationwide have cut their science and environment beats. On top of that, strapped newsrooms often don’t have the resources—or the subscribers—to justify covering issues that are so important to rural communities.
Criticism of a controversial new agreement between the state and the federal government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory often has one thing in common—deadlines. Most agreements between states and the federal government to clean up nuclear waste have fixed deadlines set for benchmarks. If the federal Department of Energy misses one of these deadlines, it can then be sanctioned and penalized by the state. “The Department of Energy hates penalties,” Scott Kovac, a research and operations director with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in an interview. “A deadline might shake out some funding from its budget.”
For 11 years, a previous consent agreement between DOE and the state Environment Department set strict deadlines like these in New Mexico.
On Thursday, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Gov. Susana Martinez announced a $73 million settlement for claims from the state in relation to a leak of radioactive materials from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in early 2014. The $73 million settlement will go towards projects in the state around Department of Energy sites, including WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory. In late 2014, the state announced fines of $54.3 million for hazardous waste violations by the Department of Energy. The fines came after an investigation from the New Mexico Environment Department. Earlier this year, a report stated that the state Environment Department was considering $100 million or more in additional fines.
Local officials in southeastern New Mexico as well as the Susana Martinez administration are pushing for more nuclear waste to be sent to southeastern New Mexico. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on a letter from Gov. Susana Martinez to Department of Energy secretary Earnest Moniz. The letter asked the Barack Obama administration to consider southeastern New Mexico as a location to hold spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. The New Mexican also has a copy of the letter available online. From the New Mexican: “Time and time again, the citizens of southeastern New Mexico have impressed me with their hard work ethic and willingness to tackle national problems that many others consider to be unsolvable,” Martinez wrote.