‘Forever deadly’: State officials, communities scramble to fight a proposal to house high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico

Rose Gardner is not giving up. 

A Eunice resident, Gardner has spent the past few years fighting a proposal to store high-level nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico. 

“I was born here in Eunice, New Mexico, and have lived through a lot of ups and downs, oil booms and busts,” Gardner told NM Political Report. “But never have I ever felt that we needed an industry as dangerous as storing high-level nuclear waste right here.”

Gardner, who co-founded the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, is part of a groundswell of opposition to a project currently under consideration by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that would see the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facility be built along the Lea-Eddy county line.  

Holtec International, a private company specializing in spent nuclear fuel storage and management, applied for a license from the NRC in 2017 to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico that would hold waste generated at nuclear utilities around the country temporarily until a permanent, federally-managed repository is established. The license application is making steady progress in the NRC’s process, despite the pandemic. 

Proponents of the project tout the estimated $3 billion in capital investments and 100 new jobs that it would bring to the area. But opponents — including the governor of New Mexico, most tribal nations in the state, state lawmakers, 12 local governments and a number of local associations — worry that the proposed interim storage facility would become a de facto permanent storage solution for the nation’s growing nuclear waste. “There’s a great concern that this waste, should it end up in New Mexico, will really never move from here,” state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told NM Political Report.

Herrell wins GOP primary, will face Torres Small again for CD2 seat in general election

A three-way race in the Republican primary for the state’s 2nd Congressional District ended with former state representative Yvette Herrell winning the Republican nod. 

The Associated Press called the race for Herrell at about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday evening. Herrell had garnered 45.58 percent of the vote at the time.  

The primary campaign was dominated by attacks between Herrell and oil and gas lobbyist Claire Chase. Chase came under fire in the early days of the campaign for social media posts made in 2015 and 2016 that were critical of President Donald Trump. Chase has since praised Trump for his “fearless leadership.” 

Related: Progressive Democrats defeat incumbents, with some races still pending

Chase took more vots in Chaves and Eddy counties, but fell behind Herrell in Doña Ana County and Lea County. Chase garnered 31.62 percent of the vote as of 2 a.m. Wednesday to Herrell’s 44.77 percent.

State announces 69 new cases and five COVID-19 related deaths

On Sunday, state health officials announced five new deaths related to COVID-19 and 69 new cases of the illness in a partial update.The state said the update is missing results from private labs, due to a “technical delay.” The missing results will be included in Monday’s update. 

The state’s total of COVID-19 cases is now at 7,689 cases reported since the pandemic began. There are now 356 deaths recorded in the state related to the illness. Four of the five new deaths were in San Juan County, the fifth death was in McKinley County. 

The five new deaths were: 

A female in her 80s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 60s from San Juan County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A female in her 80s from San Juan County.

ABQ officials: ‘Black lives matter. Again, black lives matter.’

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and other city officials took to the podium Friday afternoon to discuss the May 25 death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis and a Black Lives Matter protest that occurred in response to Floyd’s death Thursday night in Albuquerque. 

On Friday, fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Floyd, who was killed while handcuffed and unarmed by Chauvin in an altercation that allegedly began over an alleged fake $20 bill. Chauvin knelt with his knee on Floyd’s neck for about eight minutes, even after Floyd stopped responding.  Three other officers involved were also fired from the Minneapolis Police Department earlier this week. 

Keller said the City of Albuquerque “believes that black lives matter.”

“[George Floyd’s] death has left us, in many ways, with rightful anger and grief. It has highlighted a lot of things wrong with America. It’s also a situation where we know it’s not the first time. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery — the same thing, different context, happening time and time again,” Keller said.

COVID-19 cases in New Mexico top 7,000

The total tally of COVID-19 cases in the state reached over 7,000 Monday, as state health officials announced 93 new positive cases of COVID-19. The state also announced three deaths related to the illness, bringing the total to 320. 

The state announced some details on the three deaths: 

A male in his 50s from McKinley County. The individual had underlying conditions.A female in her 50s from San Juan County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 50s from San Juan County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.

With mother’s death, the endangered Prieto wolf pack is gone

Peering at a map of red dots, Michael Robinson became worried when he couldn’t locate AF1251, the last adult Mexican gray wolf of the Prieto pack, who was also a mother with a yearling. 

Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, was keeping an eye on the remaining two members of the Prieto pack after the alpha male of the pack and a pup had been killed by the federal Wildlife Services agents earlier this year. Wildlife Services is a secretive federal agency that offers predator removal services for ranchers. 

The two wolf killings followed the removal of a total of seven pack members over the last two years. “I’d been very interested in what would happen to the Prieto pack after [that],” Robinson said. 

The mapping tool, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tracks endangered Mexican gray wolves using radio collar data. The map is usually updated every two weeks, but amid the pandemic, the map hadn’t been updated in over a month. When it was finally updated this week, Robinson said he checked the numbers of each red dot on the map, hoping to locate the female.

New Mexico joins multistate coalition asking for preliminary injunction on Clean Water rule

New Mexico joined Tuesday a coalition of 16 states, the City of New York and the District of Columbia that are asking a federal court to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new clean water rule from going into effect while it awaits a decision in an earlier lawsuit against the rule. 

Attorney General Hector Balderas joined the coalition in filing a lawsuit May 1 against the Trump Administration in the federal Northern California District Court over the EPA’s recently finalized changes to the “Waters of the U.S.” definitions in the Clean Water Act regulations. 

The definition greatly narrows the types of waterways, streams and wetlands that are afforded federal protection under the act. The New Mexico Environment Department estimates the new rule would remove protections for 89 percent of the state’s streams and half of its wetlands. RELATED: Ranchers, conservation groups unhappy with the new clean water rule, but for different reasons

The rule is slated to take effect in June, spurring the multistate coalition to ask for a preliminary injunction that asks that the rule be enjoined until the court makes a decision on the coalition’s lawsuit “in order to prevent widespread harm to national water quality and to avoid disruption to state and local water pollution control programs,” according to a statement issued by the AG’s office. 

In a separate statement, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said NMED will do “whatever it takes to prevail in protecting our most precious resource.”

“We will not allow a rule to take effect this summer that will devastate New Mexico’s scarce and limited water resources,” Kenney said. NMED submitted comments on the rule in April, arguing that the new rule is “not based on hydrologic science” and “does not account for the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle,” and said the new rule is not protective of public health or the environment.

State announces seven deaths and 134 new cases of COVID-19

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced seven new deaths related to COVID-19 and 134 new cases of the illness during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. A total of 6,317 individuals in the state have tested positive for COVID-19 and a total of 283 deaths are attributed to the illness. 

The seven deaths include 3 from McKinley County and 4 from San Juan County. Those deaths are:

A female in her 50s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A female in her 70s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 70s from McKinley County.

Hidden exposures: Studies point to unsafe levels of formaldehyde exposure in oil and gas communities in NM

On a hot, dusty day in August last year, a group of regulators from the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department traveled to Counselor, New Mexico, to tour the oil and gas sites that dot the landscape of the Greater Chaco region. 

The group included NMED’s Air Quality Bureau chief Elizabeth Bisbey-Kuehn, Environmental Protection Division director Sandra Ely, NMED Secretary James Kenney and EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst — all key regulatory figures in the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, tasked with developing new regulations around oil and gas emissions. Teresa Seamster, Navajo Nation Counselor Chapter Health Committee member, used the opportunity to present the findings of a recently completed health impact assessment (HIA), which found periodic spikes of formaldehyde and other pollutants associated with oil and gas development, recorded at unsafe levels for short periods of time near homes. 

“Formaldehyde is probably one of the most carcinogenic chemicals in air that you can have,” Seamster told NM Political Report. “It will cause irritation of the respiratory tract, it can lead to throat and nose cancer, chronic respiratory inflammation and bronchitis, it’s definitely something you do not want in the environment, and we were getting it in the open air at levels that require mitigation.”

“Formaldehyde was detected at all sites at unhealthy levels,” she added. 

Seamster and other volunteers from the chapter conducted the study under the guidance of the Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit public health organization that conducts scientific air quality monitoring for communities near oil and gas development. The report is currently unpublished — and will likely remain so until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and the Navajo Nation government is able to reopen — but NM Political Report obtained a copy. It’s also the latest in a growing body of evidence, codified into multiple peer-reviewed studies conducted across the country, that indicates communities situated near oil and gas development are exposed to hazardous pollution at higher levels than either state or federal regulatory agencies recognize.

Ranchers, conservation groups unhappy with the new clean water rule, but for different reasons

The Donald Trump administration only finalized its new clean water rule a few days ago and the regulation is already being challenged in federal court by ranchers, conservation groups and state governments. 

The conservation-focused New Mexico Wilderness Alliance joined a coalition of conservation groups that allege the new rule goes too far in gutting protections for many streams and wetlands in New Mexico and across the country. 

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, on the other hand, also filed a lawsuit against the administration, arguing that the new rule doesn’t go far enough in rolling back those protections. 

RELATED: EPA rolls back water protections for seasonal rivers and streams

Ephemeral and intermittent waters make up the meat of the rule change and its challenges. Previous versions of the clean water rule included ephemeral and intermittent streams, which only flow in response to precipitation events such as torrential rains or snowpack melt. The Trump administration’s version of the rule removes protections for all ephemeral streams and some intermittent waterways and wetlands. For New Mexico’s landscape, those terms define up to 90 percent of the state’s surface water. 

“It’s a bold step by the EPA to do this,” Tony Francois, senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, and who is representing the Cattle Growers Association, told NM Political Report. “They’re in for a lot of controversy and criticism for doing it.” 

A history lesson in defining WOTUS

The Clean Water Act’s regulations have been controversial since day one, mostly because the federal government has had a hard time delineating which waters should and should not be regulated at the federal level, as determined by the regulatory definition of “waters of the United States,” also known as WOTUS. 

Due to ambiguity in the original 1986 clean water rule, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers used their own interpretations of the term for years in their respective regulatory roles. In 2001 and 2006, the Supreme Court weighed in on the definition in two separate decisions, but no clear majority opinion emerged from those cases. 

“Those [regulations] were very expansive, they basically regulated all tributaries, without any qualifications, and that included ephemeral tributaries, basically any place where water would drain where it rained,” Francois said. 

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a new rule in 2015 that attempted to clarify its boundaries using the “significant nexus” test, an idea proposed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Kennedy in the 2006 case.