April 3, 2017

Around NM: Gold King Mine, science for students, Downwinders and more


Entrance to the Gold King Mine. Photo via Environmental Protection Agency

After the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 contaminated the Animas River, farmers, local residents, businesses and the Navajo Nation filed claims against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Contractors with the agency caused the spill of mining waste into the river. At the time, claimants pegged their economic losses at $1.2 billion.

According to the AP, which filed Freedom of Information Act requests to view the claims, the total is now $420 million, not $1.2 billion:

A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million.

It’s still uncertain whether the White House and Congress — both now controlled by the GOP — are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, even though Republicans were among the most vocal in demanding the EPA make good on the harm.

In January, the EPA said under the Federal Tort Claims Act it was not legally able to pay the claims. According to the agency, the work being done at Gold King Mine did not meet the conditions necessary to allow EPA to compensate people and businesses for damages.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez called that decision an “insult” by President Obama’s administration in an AP story:

“I can guarantee you that if a private company had caused this massive environmental disaster, the EPA would have gone all-out to hold them accountable,” Martinez said in a written statement.

“But when the federal government dumps millions of gallons of toxic sludge into our rivers, they shirk their responsibility and leave it up to the states to mop up the mess they created,” she said.

With a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress, the EPA’s next move will be up to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Following Pruitt’s confirmation hearing, Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said Pruitt would “make the Gold King mine problems right.” According to a story on ColoradoPolitics.com, Gardner said:

“He agreed to come to Colorado shortly after his confirmation to make sure that the people of Colorado know that he will fulfill the promises that were failed under the Obama Administration.”

Meanwhile, New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce introduced two EPA-related bills last week:  H.R. 1430, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act, and H.R. 1431, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act.

“Over the years, the EPA has implemented costly regulations that have increased utility costs for families, hindered small businesses development, limited accessibility, and crushed jobs in New Mexico,” the Republican congressman said in a prepared statement. “Americans deserve to know the information and data that create the regulations affecting their day-to-day lives. The bills passed this week will provide New Mexicans with assurance that the EPA will clearly and fully explain the science and motivation behind their actions.”

Last week’s NM Political Report environment stories:
Martinez vetoes bill on access to public databases for ‘political’ purposes
Report: solar jobs growing nationwide and in NM
EPA head tells states they don’t have to follow Clean Power Plan
Orders from Trump, Zinke reverse nation’s climate and energy policy
Report: Drilling spills down in 2016
Rio Grande water managers freed up from some ESA constraints

Head-in-the-sand science

If you missed “Sanitized Science,” by Matt Grubs last week in the Santa Fe Reporter, you should go read the whole thing right now. (Well, go read it after you’re done here.)

Despite promises, the state of New Mexico hasn’t updated its science standards for public school students. The new standards would include updated information on scientific discoveries and advances and an emphasis on physical and life sciences, cause-and-effect relationships and experimentation.

According to the story:

For four years, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera has had on her desk a unanimous recommendation from a hand-picked panel of math and science experts. They want the state to join a growing list of others that have adopted the nationally vetted Next Generation Science Standards. It’s been two years since Skandera convened a focus group of 85 teachers, professors and school administrators to review new standards. That group also recommended NGSS adoption.

So, what’s the hangup?

Since no one in the Office of the Governor or the Public Education Department would answer SFR’s questions, Grubs set to find out:

The sensitive parts of the standards are a tiny but politically charged sliver: human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution. Those have been the sticking points for NGSS adoption in other states that, like New Mexico, lean heavily on revenues from extractive industries. And they were the only academic topics raised by senators and representatives who questioned the new standards this spring in the Capitol.

Aside from the fact that the climate is changing, and that New Mexico will require generations of smart kids to address problems like water scarcity and increased infectious diseases like Valley Fever and hantavirus, there’s another reason the updated standards are important: Only 39 percent of New Mexico high school juniors tested proficient in science last year.

In related news, PBS reported last week that the Heartland Institute, which uses its resources to cast doubt on the work of climate scientists, sent packages to 25,000 science teachers in March. The packages included a book, DVD and letter disputing human-caused climate change and asking that teachers serve their students better by “letting them know a vibrant debate is taking place among scientists.”

According to the story:

The material will be sent to an additional 25,000 teachers every two weeks until every public-school science teacher in the nation has a copy, Heartland president and CEO Joseph Bast said in an interview last week. If so, the campaign would reach more than 200,000 K-12 science teachers.

No news is good news. Right?

At the U.S. Department of Energy, a supervisor told his staff to not use the words “climate change,” “emissions reductions,” or “Paris agreement” in written communications. That’s according to a story last week in Politico:

Employees of DOE’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy learned of the ban at a meeting Tuesday, the same day President Donald Trump signed an executive order at EPA headquarters to reverse most of former President Barack Obama’s climate regulatory initiatives. Officials at the State Department and in other DOE offices said they had not been given a banned words list, but they had started avoiding climate-related terms in their memos and briefings given the new administration’s direction on climate change.

Nuke news

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly was negotiating a historic ban on nuclear weapons. But the United States was among the countries to boycott those talks.

As reported in Al Jazeera, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said the countries boycotting the talks “would love to have a ban on nuclear weapons, but in this day and time we can’t honestly say we can protect our people by allowing bad actors to have them and those of us that are good trying to keep peace and safety not to have them.”

Meanwhile, this weekend people from the Tularosa Basin held their annual protests near the Trinity Site, which is open to visitors twice a year.

From a story in the Las Cruces Sun-News:

This year a fresh face, Ernesto Borunda, stood with the Downwinders and told his perspective on the Trinity Test.

“We used to live on a farm (in Laborcita Canyon) and my dad and uncle used to farm it,” Borunda said. “We had a nice crop in the springtime, basically nothing in the summer and nothing in the fall. What I figured out later is that the bomb had killed all the pollinating insects and most of the crops just didn’t get fertilized. My uncle and my dad had to move to Alamogordo and became laborers, when all their lives they’d been independent farmers.”

Borunda, who was 6 years old in 1945, said he remembered how silent it became after the bomb was dropped.

“I remember it was like a concert, you’d go out of the house and you could hear all the crickets and birds,” Borunda said. “After that, it was just very silent.”