In a press conference on Monday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase went over the new tiered “red to green” COVID-19 framework that the state will enter on Dec. 2, following the end of the two-week lockdown “reset.”
“This, we believe, is a mechanism that will allow New Mexico to sort of move through the virus, protect New Mexicans [and] provide a little bit of more economic certainty for the entire state as a whole,” Lujan Grisham said during the remote press conference.
Thursday night, a group of Indigenous community leaders gave presentations about the legacy of uranium mining in the state that still threatens the health and environment of their communities, decades after the last mines ceased operations.
From the 1940s through the early 1990s, New Mexico produced roughly 70 percent of the uranium in the United States, which was used in nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Members of Indigenous communities across the state did most of the dangerous mining of the radioactive material, and those communities are still struggling to hold the federal government accountable for cleaning up the toxic contamination that was left behind.
“We felt that there were a large portion of our communities across the state that still remain largely unaware of the major environmental justice impacts that uranium continues to have on so many individuals—especially our Indigenous communities—across the state,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which organized the online event.
“It’s very important that we recognize that there are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned mines, unsealed pits, mine entrances, tailing ponds, waste piles, highly radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from uranium mining and milling, many that have yet to be cleaned up and continue to pose significant health threats,” Necochea said. “This continued uranium contamination that we witness, and that our communities continue to face, is a clear example of environmental racism and an environmental injustice that continues.”
A state of sacrifice zones
Much of the uranium mining that occurred in New Mexico was on tribal lands and was performed by tribal members. The Grants Mining District and the nearby Navajo Nation is home to one of the country’s most productive uranium belts, and the region was one of the most intensely-mined areas in the U.S., according to Manuel Pino, a member of Acoma Pueblo and an organizer of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment (LACSE). Today, there are more than 1,000 remaining uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed or remediated.
New Mexico Department of Health officials announced 3,674 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, blowing past the record-setting 2,897 cases that were reported just Wednesday.
Several counties reported new records in single-day increases in cases of the disease. Over a thousand new cases were identified in Bernalillo County alone, and 502 new cases were reported in Doña Ana County. Three other counties had more than 200 new cases: Sandoval County (270), Santa Fe County (266) and McKinley County (209). Four other counties reported more than 100 new cases: Lea County (156), San Juan County (146), Valencia County (136) and Chaves County (110).
Seventy new cases were identified among inmates held by the New Mexico Corrections Department, and eight new cases were identified among inmates held by the federal government at Cibola County Correctional Center. DOH also reported 12 new deaths related to COVID-19.
The Pecos watershed is home to some of the state’s most pristine riparian habitat, but Lela McFerrin, vice president of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, is worried that a proposal to drill new mines in the area will threaten the creeks, streams and drainages that make up the headwaters of the Pecos river.
“What we’re well known for is crystal clear, pure water. That’s what keeps us alive up here,” McFerrin told NM Political Report.
In 2019, Comexico, a subsidiary of the Australia-based mining firm New World Resources, submitted a proposal to acquire rights to 20 federal mining claims in the area. The company hopes to dig multiple mines to extract zinc, copper and gold.
McFerrin and other community members banded together to fight the proposal at the local level. The Stop Tererro Mine coalition includes area residents, members of the Pecos, Tesuque and Jemez pueblos, and environmental and conservation groups.
But the mineral rights beneath the ground in the National Forest are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and there was little action that local leaders could take to prevent future mining in the watershed. So the coalition turned to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.
“The proposal by Comexico is what really brought that community together, and they started communicating with my office,” Heinrich told NM Political Report.
“That conversation with people who live in that valley, people who fish in that valley, people who farm in that valley, is what led to this legislation,” he said.
The Pecos Watershed Protection Act would remove mineral rights from future leasing on roughly 170,000 acres of National Forest land of the watershed.
In the first year of the Trump presidency, Michigan U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell asked Catherine McCabe, who was serving as Administrator to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for a drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals. “Promises were made,” Dingell said during a panel talk Tuesday. “Four years later, promises were not kept, and it’s just unacceptable.”
PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, refer to a family of at least 600 synthetic compounds that are widely used in commercial products ranging from fire-resistant carpeting to fast-food wrappers. Research has linked exposure to the chemicals to a long list of health concerns, including increased risks for certain types of cancers, increased cholesterol, pregnancy complications and other health impacts. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health linked exposure to PFAS chemicals in infants to a decreased immune response to vaccinations at five years old.
The class of chemicals were first synthesized in the 1940s by chemical manufacturing companies Dupont and 3M, decades before the EPA was established.
Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo said the federal government did not consult with pueblo leaders before deciding to end most of the healthcare services offered at a regional medical facility that serves roughly 9,000 Indigenous residents.
Indian Health Service (IHS), which sits under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recently suspended most of the services offered at the Acoma-Cañoncito-Laguna (ACL) unit, including inpatient critical care and emergency room services, converting the facility into a “limited hour urgent care,” according to a press release from Acoma Pueblo. The facility will still offer COVID-19 testing, but will no longer accept patients or offer emergency room services.
The facility serves Indigenous communities of Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo and the To’Hajiilee chapter of the Navajo Nation. The hospital serves roughly 9,000 Indigenous residents, and has a 25 inpatient bed capacity.
The suspension of services comes as COVID-19 cases surge across the state and hospital bed capacity has quickly been filled. Vallo issued a state of emergency declaration on Nov. 6 in response to the closure.
RELATED: State to reimpose shutdown starting Monday: ‘We are in a life or death situation’
“The closure of the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna hospital by the Indian Health Services is one of the most devastating events to occur at our Pueblo, and could not have come at a worse time,” Vallo said during a press conference Monday.
The New Mexico Department of Health announced 1,180 new cases of COVID-19 identified Saturday, and ten new deaths related to the disease.
Bernalillo County had the most new cases with 335. DOH reported 162 new cases in Doña Ana County . Six other counties had more than 50 new cases, and eight more had more than ten new cases. The state Department of Health also reported 39 new cases of the disease among inmates being held by the New Mexico Corrections Department. DOH provided a few details about each of the ten deaths reported Saturday:
A female in her 80s from Bernalillo County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Grace Adult Care Home in Albuquerque.A male in his 30s from Doña Ana County who was hospitalized.A male in his 50s from Doña Ana County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A female in her 70s from Doña Ana County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Casa de Oro Center in Las Cruces.A female in her 80s from Doña Ana County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Casa de Oro Center in Las Cruces.A second female in her 80s from Doña Ana County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Casa de Oro Center in Las Cruces.A male in his 90s from Doña Ana County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Casa de Oro Center in Las Cruces.A male in his 80s from Grant County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 50s from Roosevelt County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A female in her 80s from Sandoval County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of The Retreat Gardens facility in Rio Rancho.
After two years of planning and months of negotiations, the Navajo community of To’Hajiilee announced an agreement that will deliver much-needed water to residents. Mark Begay, president of the To’Hajiilee chapter of the Navajo Nation, called the settlement a historic occasion.
“I am a Marine Corps veteran, and it’s only fitting that this agreement came on Veterans Day,” Begay said during a virtual press conference Friday afternoon. “I’m overwhelmed with emotions: joy, happiness.”
To’Hajiilee, located 20 miles west of Albuquerque, is home to roughly 2,500 residents who all rely on just one supply well, which pumps water up from the Rio Puerco aquifer. The water levels in the aquifer have dropped in recent decades, and what water that’s left is filled with corrosive dissolved solids that eat through the pump equipment and wreak havoc on the indoor plumbing systems of the residents in To’Hajiilee. RELATED: A ‘humanitarian crisis’: To’Hajiilee’s aquifer is running out of water
The Navajo Nation owns rights to surface water that could be piped into To’Hajiilee and serve the community.
Some state legislators are concerned about the possible revenue implications of a proposed rule aimed at reducing methane waste in oil and gas operations. The state’s Legislative Finance Committee, a committee made up of members of both the House and Senate that considers priorities for the state budget ahead of the January session, is gearing up for a tough year financially for the state after the COVID-19 pandemic and an unrelated but simultaneous bust in the oil market has ravished state coffers.
“The state is in, in my terms, dire financial straits, because of income,” said Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo. “We are in a time right now where income to the state is down, oil and gas revenues are down. The timing sometimes is not always the best and so I think hopefully that will come into consideration before we finally apply these rules.”
The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) proposed methane rule would require all oil and gas operators in the state to reduce their methane waste by a fixed amount every single year, starting in 2022, to reach the 98 percent gas capture rate by the end of 2026.
RELATED: As methane rulemaking progresses, questions about exemptions linger
EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst told lawmakers during a recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting that the department’s proposal “will yield an additional $10 billion a year in revenue to the state for wasted resources” that would otherwise be lost. Cottrell Propst called the $10 billion a “low-end estimate.”
But several lawmakers on the committee worried the new regulations would threaten some of the state’s oil and gas operators during the downturn.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee removed language from a FY2021 budget bill for the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) that would ensure the ten mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon remains in place for another year.
In late 2019, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich were successful in adding in language to the DOI’s FY2020 appropriations bill that ensured the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would refrain from leasing parcels of land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park through FY2020, which ended in October. A continuing resolution was passed in October to extend the buffer through December 11.
But the new appropriations bill, unveiled Tuesday by the Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee, did not contain language to extend that buffer for another year.
The committee said it “continues to expect that the Department [of Interior] will not conduct any oil and gas leasing activities authorized by section 17 of the Mineral Leasing Act (30 U.S.C. 226) in the withdrawal area,” its explanatory statement about the appropriations. The committee pointed to cultural resources investigations that have been awarded federal funding to “identify culturally and historically significant areas and sites in areas of high energy development potential within the region” and said it expects DOI will not lease lands in the buffer “until the completion of the investigations.”
RELATED: Tribes, archaeologists are working to identify sites in Greater Chaco for protections from oil and gas
The omission could result in parcels of land within the buffer zone being made available for oil and gas development during the next leasing auction for the region, which is slated for January 2021. That will be the last leasing auction under the Trump administration.
New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Secretary Lynn Trujillo said she was concerned about the new bill “because it would eliminate an existing prohibition on issuing oil and gas leases” in the buffer zone.
“The greater Chaco landscape is a sacred place to New Mexico’s Pueblos and Tribes, and it has been targeted for oil and gas drilling for far too long,” Trujillo said in a statement.
New Mexico Wilderness Alliance executive director Mark Allison said the omission “confirms that too many members of Congress value oil and gas companies over our Native communities and their shared cultural heritage.”
“It’s disheartening to see that a UNESCO World Heritage Site cherished by Tribes and Pueblos continues to be placed squarely in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry,” Allison said in a statement.
There is a separate piece of legislation, which was sponsored by the state’s congressional delegation and which passed the House in 2019, that would permanently remove all federal public lands within ten miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future oil and gas lease sales. That bill has not had a hearing yet in the Senate.