A wildlife emergency is brewing at the border

On a sunny, brisk Saturday morning in October, a group of 10 people gathered along the newest portion of the border wall between the United States and Mexico, built east of Santa Teresa in southern New Mexico. Construction has halted for the weekend, and the morning air is filled with the sound of birds. “This is one of the most diverse areas in the U.S.,” said Kevin Bixby, the executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center and self-described “border tourism” guide for the group. Behind him, the newly constructed steel wall rose up out of the low brush that makes up the New Mexico portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from the Rio Grande Valley south of Albuquerque southward across northern and central Mexico. Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwestern Environmental Center, stands before a section of border wall in southern New Mexico.

Another mining spill on the Animas River

Wastewater from a mining site in southwestern Colorado spilled into the Animas River on Wednesday. The EPA alerted New Mexico and Colorado state officials to the spill later that day. The EPA is still trying to determine the extent of the spill, which occurred at the Silver Wing Mine, located north of Silverton, Colorado. The discharges have discolored the river, the EPA said. The Animas River snakes through southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.

An evolving nuclear agenda spurs plutonium pit production at LANL

Los Alamos has a starring role in a shift to U.S. nuclear policy that’s two presidential terms in the making. Nuclear watchdog groups in the state are concerned about the United States’ evolving nuclear agenda, which will see a sharp increase in plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL recently released its $13 billion expansion proposal to accommodate increased pit production at the site. The expansion is part of a wider push across the country to ramp up the nuclear warhead manufacturing machine, according to Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group. 

“We’re on the cusp at the moment of awakening the wolf in the domestic dog,” Mello told NM Political Report, adding that nuclear facilities across the country have increased production shifts and doubled staffs. “Everyone is hiring like crazy,” he said.

Democratizing energy: Advocates want community solar in 2020 session

State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero would like to redefine energy production in New Mexico. Speaking on a panel about community solar, Caballero said she got the idea from the book Energy Democracy, which she uses as a textbook when she teaches. “The basic premise is that we treat energy as commons,” the Albuquerque Democrat said, “and we change how we understand energy production, from consumption and profit being an end, to an energy transition providing services essential to life and quality of living for all community members.”

Roybal Caballero is one of a group of advocates and activists who gathered at the Center for Peace and Justice in Santa Fe on Tuesday to discuss the benefits of community solar and its place in a just transition to clean energy. The event was organized by the nonprofit advocacy group Retake Our Democracy. “That’s an important premise, and one that we need to be grounded in,” she said.

More questions than answers on how to reuse produced water

While fresh water supplies in the state are slowly dwindling, oil and gas activity generates millions of gallons of produced water each year. The state is currently deciding how best to regulate the use of treated produced water, while researchers, oil and gas producers and other companies are trying to find new uses for the wastewater. Produced water is a byproduct of the oil and gas extraction activities currently going on in two energy-generating sections of the state, the Permian Basin in the southeastern portion of the state, and the San Juan basin in the Four Corners area. The wastewater comes into contact with hydrocarbons and drilling constituents, and is generally considered contaminated. As the state gears up to hold a series of public meetings on recycling produced water throughout October, there are some serious question marks over the feasibility of using treated produced water in applications outside the oil and gas industry.

Supreme Court declines to rule on constitutionality of ETA

The New Mexico Supreme Court denied a request to determine the constitutionality of the Energy Transition Act (ETA) on Tuesday. The decision was released without an opinion. In August, the advocacy nonprofit New Energy Economy (NEE) filed a writ of mandamus asking the Court to rule on whether portions of the ETA are unconstitutional. The writ alleges that wording in the ETA removes the Public Regulation Commission’s (PRC) regulatory oversight of Public Service of New Mexico (PNM) and proposed rate increases. New Energy Economy’s executive director, Mariel Nanasi, announced the court decision at a panel discussion in Santa Fe Tuesday evening. 

“We believe the ETA is unconstitutional, especially in regards to its eviscerating the regulatory authority [of the PRC],” Nanasi said.

Balancing wildlife and wildfire in revised forest plans

The U.S. Forest Service is in the middle of a major update to forest management plans. Four National Forests in New Mexico — the  Santa Fe, Carson, Cibola and Gila national forests — are now in various stages of the multi-year process to update management plans from the 1980s. 

The Forest Service has the difficult task of balancing its management plan for a host of diverse uses, ranging from resource management, recreational use, wildlife conservation and wildfire management. There has been a recent push by conservation groups to protect wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity by designating more portions of the National Forest as wilderness. But the discussion on how best to protect habitat has shone a light on another important component of forest management — one that’s a bit more controversial among residents: wildfire. Earlier this summer, the Santa Fe National Forest released the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, a vegetation management project proposal designed to improve ecosystem resiliency to wildfire.

Touring the fracking wells at Chaco Canyon

“Take a left here,” Daniel Tso says, gesturing with a hand towards an unmarked dirt road. There’s a small, hand-painted sign beside a tree that reads “Living Spring Church,” the only marker I’ve seen so far that differentiates this dirt road from the web of other unmarked roads we took to get here. We’re headed to a group of fracking wells in what’s now called the “Greater Chaco landscape,” 25 million square miles of land outside of Counselor, New Mexico. Tso, who is a delegate on the Navajo Nation Council representing Counselor and the surrounding area, sits in the passenger seat of the car while my husband drives. I’m in the backseat, taking notes as he points out changes to the landscape caused by oil and gas development. 

Daniel Tso, right, leads the “Fracking Reality Tours” in the Greater Chaco region.

Army: No PFAS contamination at White Sands Missile Range

U.S. Army officials say no PFAS contamination has been detected at White Sands Missile Range, contradicting an article published by NM Political Report on September 24. That article was on this page, but is replaced with this post. Army personnel contacted NM Political Report Thursday to clarify the issue. Our initial article incorrectly stated groundwater samples from White Sands Missile Range tested positive for PFNA, which belongs to the PFAS family of chemicals found in firefighting foam. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of human-made chemicals, and include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).

ESA rules could spell trouble for the lesser prairie chicken

The lesser prairie chicken can’t catch a break. The fowl, a relative of the sage grouse, has the misfortune of calling portions of the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico home. Grazing, oil and gas development and water scarcity in southeastern New Mexico has decimated the bird’s population in New Mexico over the last 25 years. 

The species was briefly listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, but after a series of lawsuits from industry groups, the bird’s listing is currently caught in bureaucratic limbo. Officials in southeastern New Mexico have pledged to keep fighting against attempts to protect it. And now, tweaks to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) could spell extinction for the bird.