The big news this morning is the Ute Park Fire in northern New Mexico near Ute Park and Cimarron, which blew up overnight to 8,000 acres. According to the New Mexico State Forestry update at 7:30 this morning, 12 structures at Philmont Scout Ranch were destroyed, and 150 other structures are threatened. As of Friday morning, Highway 64 is closed between Eagle Nest Lake and Cimarron and State Route 204 is closed at Cimarron. There are evacuation centers at the Eagle Nest Senior Center, Cimarron Elementary/Middle School and the Raton Convention Center. Around the state right now, there are a few other fires burning, including the Kellar Fire in the Lincoln National Forest, the Arena Canyon Fire in San Juan County and the Buzzard Fire in the Gila National Forest.
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.
I hope readers had a restful break from work, school and yes, media, too. To help catch you up on environment news around New Mexico, I have a few links to share. In December, PNM closed two units at its San Juan Generating Station. Now, the utility wants legislative approval to address how it will recover the money it spent on the plant. According to an AP story by Susan Montoya Bryan: The utility closed two units at the plant in December as part of an agreement to curb haze-causing pollution in the Four Corners region.
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.
On Tuesday, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his agency to “adopt more aggressive practices” to prevent and combat wildfires. We’ll keep you posted on what that actually means, and what it will mean for New Mexico. E&E news reported this week that Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order restricting the length of environmental studies to 150 pages or less, or less than 300 pages for “unusually complex projects.” According to the story, “More broadly, the memo gives Bernhardt the potentially far-reaching responsibility for overseeing the department’s efforts to clear away ‘potential impediments’ and ‘streamline’ the environmental review process.” Before claiming the Number Two position at Interior, Bernhardt was a lobbyist whose clients included mining and energy companies and the nation’s largest irrigation district, California’s Westlands Water District. He represented Westlands in four different lawsuits against the department where he now works. The Associated Press reports that the New Mexico Department of Transportation is putting up warning signs along the stretch of Interstate-10 near the border with New Mexico that’s become increasingly prone to dust storms, putting drivers at risk.
Last week, a United Nations group signed a draft treaty to prohibit the development, manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons. When President Donald Trump pulled the United States back from global climate change action earlier this year, that move was met with outrage from many, including elected leaders, across the country. The international action banning nuclear weapons has received far less attention, including here in New Mexico where many communities have been wedded to nuclear weapons research, production and waste since World War II. Today, the U.S. and Russia together control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Eight countries have tested nuclear weapons, and currently, the United States remains the only one to have deployed nuclear weapons outside of tests.
National policies always affect New Mexico’s lands and natural resources, especially during times of uncertainty. In the 1940s, for example, military and nuclear interests honed in on the state’s lands and natural resources. The U.S. government established what became Los Alamos National Laboratory on Pajarito Plateau in 1943, and detonated the first atomic bomb two years later near Alamogordo. White Sands Missile Range, which encompasses 3,200 square miles, was created in the 1940s, as were the military bases in Albuquerque and Clovis, now called Kirtland and Cannon. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news right now.
Today, the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor released information about unspent funds in various state accounts. A quick read of the report shows that New Mexico isn’t spending all it has available on environment and water projects. According to the report, New Mexico has $512 million in unspent water-related infrastructure funding. The office points out that despite increasing needs around the state, “water-related infrastructure funds continue to accumulate faster than they can get out the door.”
The state also has $43 million in “stagnant funds” that haven’t been used the last two years according to the State Auditor. Among the largest of those 39 funds?