January 2, 2017

Around NM: Oil jobs, climate change, nuclear contractors and WIPP’s reopening


CH TRU waste containers are off-loaded in the disposal room at WIPP.

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.

Is it getting warm in here?

On New Year’s Eve, the Albuquerque Journal reported that 2016 was “one of the warmest years on record” for New Mexico.

Globally, 2016 will likely be the warmest year on record. According to NASA, global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent both broke records throughout the year.

To gain a better understanding of what’s happening with sea ice, and why it matters—even to us here in the desert a mile high—check out this.

While some claim to dismiss climate change as a “hoax,” it’s worth noting that the United States military is among those taking it seriously.

Earlier this year, the National Intelligence Council issued its most recent report on the implications of climate change on national security. The Climate and Security Advisory Group also issued a briefing book for the incoming presidential administration.

More weapons contractors dinged for allegedly lobbying with federal money

Before Christmas, the Center for Public Integrity’s Pat Malone (who previously worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican) reported on the latest settlement paid by nuclear weapons contractors for illegally spending federal funds.

According to Malone’s story, the “latest case emerged from a civil lawsuit that accused two companies of both performing substandard work at a nuclear weapons-related waste site and said one of them had improperly spent/ government funds to lobby for more.”

The most recent settlement involves Bechtel National Inc., its parent Bechtel Corp., URS Corp. and its subsidiary URS Energy and Construction Inc.

Bechtel and URS—which is now owned by AECOM—also operate the nation’s two nuclear weapons labs, at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Labs.

(In today’s installment of “It’s a Small World After All,” it’s worth noting that AECOM also has contracts from the state of New Mexico to design the proposed diversion on the Gila River.)

This is only the most recent settlement. Last year, Lockheed Martin Corp, which operates Sandia National Laboratory, paid a $4.7 million settlement for allegedly using federal funds to lobby for a no-bid contract extension. One of the lobbyists involved was former New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson.

And in 2013, Fluor Corp. paid a $1.1 million settlement over doing the same at a facility in Washington.

According to Malone’s story:

Three whistleblowers—Walt Tamosaitis, Donna Busche and Gary Brunson—filed a lawsuit on Feb. 4, 2013, accusing Bechtel and URS bosses of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds over a dozen years that together cost the government more than $1 billion. They also said safety lapses at the site, motivated by a desire to meet Energy Department deadlines and collect financial bonuses, were serious enough to risk a nuclear accident.

The whistleblowers’ complaint triggered an investigation by the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General, which collected emails sent between Bechtel’s project leaders, the company’s top congressional lobbyist for nuclear projects, and Energy Department employees. The whistleblowers’ attorneys subsequently obtained the emails through the civil discovery process and incorporated them into an amended complaint. The Justice Department, in turn, used the complaint as the basis for its own investigation of Bechtel and URS.

For one of Malone’s older stories looking specifically at Sandia and Wilson’s involvement in its lobbying campaign, click here.

As NM Political Report covered last year, Wilson met with the Trump team and is being considered for the Director of National Intelligence.

WIPP it good

And then there’s the story of WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico.

A few days before Christmas, after a site inspection in early December, the New Mexico Environment Department announced that it was approving the resumption of normal operations at WIPP.

In February 2014, two incidents occurred that shut down the underground nuclear waste repository. On February 5, a salt haul truck caught fire in the caverns. On Valentine’s Day, an air monitor’s alarm went off, signalling airborne radiation. The following day, an air monitor at the surface also detected airborne radiation.

For more than two years, storage from nuclear sites like Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Kentucky’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the Hanford Waste Treatment and Isolation Plant in Washington has been held up.

According to the department’s inspection letter, the U.S. Department of Energy and its private contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, are also allowed to store hot waste aboveground.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy—which will likely soon be led by former Texas Governor Rick Perry—had identified nearly two dozen issues the plant needs to resolve before opening. Now, WIPP is expected to re-open in January.

A recent story in the Carlsbad Current-Argus reflects the pressure felt at the facility, which is in southeastern New Mexico:

John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Nuclear Taskforce, said the group identified several areas for concern that needed to rectified before reopening the plant.

He said added urgency to complete a campaign designed to move a large amount of waste material from Los Alamos National Laboratory in the summer of 2014 led workers to ignore details such as vehicle maintenance and containment standards.

“In general, the rush to get the campaign completed led to not paying enough attention to how the waste was treated,” he said. “What we’ve learned is we can’t cut corners anymore. When you’re rushing to get something done, accidents can happen when you’re trying to do more than the operation is capable of.”

Stronger training for employees and more detailed safety protocols were put in place, Heaton said, to prevent future incidents.

That same story highlights the balance between deadlines and safety:

“Our main concern was the safety of the workers down there, and the condition of the underground,” Fuentes said. “If we’re not gonna meet a deadline, we’re not gonna meet a deadline. The deadlines to (the workers) don’t mean anything. What good is a deadline if someone gets hurt along the way?”

Despite several “heated” discussions between the union and the DOE, Fuentes said workers are ready to return to their labor, and eager to resume operations, but he said the focus must be on ensuring similar incidents are prevented in the future.

“Sometimes a company has priorities and the workers don’t feel that way. Things comes down from the higher ups,” Fuentes said. “We’re in a facility where it becomes political. But we can’t have too many more incidents like this before they’ll think about shutting down this facility. We don’t want that.”

Undoubtedly, this will be a story to follow in the new year.

What’s happening where you live?

As we reported at the end of the year, the Trump administration’s cabinet picks will have big impacts on New Mexico’s communities, energy and natural resources, labs, water projects, and regulations. Drop a note in the comments or get in touch with us to share news of what’s happening in your community.