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   CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — For 15 years the trucks have barreled past southeastern New Mexico's potash mines and seemingly endless fields of oil rigs, hauling decades worth of plutonium-contaminated waste to what is supposed to be a safe and final resting place a half mile underground in the salt beds of the Permian Basin.
   But back-to-back accidents and a never-supposed-to-happen above-ground radiation release have shuttered the federal government's only deep underground nuclear waste dump indefinitely, raising questions about a cornerstone of the Department of Energy's $5-billion-a-year program for cleaning up legacy waste scattered across the country from decades of nuclear bomb making.
   It also highlights a lack of alternatives for disposing of tainted materials like tools, gloves, glasses and protective suits from national labs in Idaho, Illinois, South Carolina and New Mexico.
   With operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on hold, so are all shipments, including the last of nearly 4,000 barrels of toxic waste that Los Alamos National Laboratories has been ordered to remove from its campus by the end of June. The presence of that waste, some of which was dug up from decades-old, unsealed dumps in the northern New Mexico mountains and is now stored outside with little protection, came to the public's attention three years ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edges of the sprawling lab property.
   Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., says getting the rest of the waste off the mesa before wildfire season begins is "paramount," but that it is too soon to know if a temporary alternative site for storing the waste needs to be found.
   Also on hold are tests to see if the dump can expand its mission to take more than so-called lower level transuranic waste from the nation's research facilities, including hopes by DOE that it can ship hotter, liquid waste from leaking tanks at Washington state's Hanford nuclear waste site.
   New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the state will be looking closely at what caused the leak that exposed at least 13 workers and sent radiation into the air around the plant before deciding whether to back plans to allow the repository to bring in waste from new sources.
   "Events like this should never occur," he said at a news conference last week where officials confirmed the leak. "From the state's perspective, one event is far too many."
   Government officials, politicians, the contractors that run the mine and local officials all say it is too soon to speculate on what the short- or long-term impacts of the of the shutdown might be, or where else the toxic waste would go. And they emphasize that all the safety systems designed to react to worst-case scenarios like a ceiling collapse or forklift puncturing one of the huge waste canisters worked.
   "A lot of people are just jumping up and down and wanting us to shut down," said Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership that runs WIPP. "But that's not the case here. We've designed this facility to look at these types of accidents and we've planned on making sure that we continue to protect our employees and we protect the environment. And our system worked as designed."
   Still, no one yet knows what caused the first-known radiation release from the massive rooms that have been dug out of the 2,000-foot thick ancient Permian Sea bed. Eventually, they will be covered in concrete, with the intent of safely sealing the casks of mostly solid waste 2,150 feet underground and preventing any future release into the environment.
   But watchdog Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center says WIPP has now failed in its long-stated mission "to start clean, stay clean."
   On Feb. 5, the mine was shut and six workers sent to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation after a truck hauling salt caught fire. Nine days later, a radiation alert activated in the area where newly arrived waste was being stored. Preliminary tests show 13 workers suffered some radiation exposure, and monitors as far as half a mile away have since detected elevated levels of plutonium and americium in the air. Ground and water samples are being analyzed.
   Officials said they're confident the incidents are unrelated. And while they emphasize that the levels detected off-site are no more harmful than a dental X-ray, they have not been able to go underground, and have not directly answered questions about how contaminated the tunnels might be.
   "There's a whole lot of stuff that we don't know," said Hancock. "A lot more sampling that needs to be done. Then there is going to have to be public discussion what needs to be done."
   WIPP is the nation's only deep underground geological repository for anything contaminated by more than the lowest levels of radiation. And opponents will certainly use the case to fight against any expansion of WIPP's mission, which is to take only transuranic waste from federal nuclear sites.
   "I'd say the push for expansion is part of the declining safety culture that has resulted in the fire and the radiation release," Hancock said.
   "I've been talking to (DOE Carlsbad filed office manager) Joe Franco and other people for a while about my concern that we all can get a little complacent when we think we know what we're doing and everything is just fine. ... Distracted nuclear waste disposal is a bad thing because bad things are going to happen."
   Sharif said Hancock's assertions that safety was lax are "absolutely not true.'"
   He said he believes the accidents "will demonstrate how robust the facility is," and that the lessons learned will make it safer.
   Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway concedes, however, the accident could have long-term effects.
   "I am worried about the impact," he said. "I'm not worried about the (radiation) levels,
   And even after the leak, the project, which employs about 650 people, has strong support in this blue-collar mining town of about 30,000.
   "It is important not only for the community, but it's also extraordinarily important for the country," said John Heaton, a former state senator and chairman of the Carlsbad Nuclear Task Force. "Being able to clean up the complex is important for all of us. It is a defense program. All of us in the country have an obligation to deal with the defense issues, whether it's clean up, whether it's fighting wars or preparing for fighting wars."
Published in National News
ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - A witness says the gunman in a school shooting in the southeastern New Mexico city of Roswell was a student.
 
The shooter wounded two students at Berrendo Middle School on Tuesday morning before being taken into custody.
 
Officials at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, say a 14-year-old boy was flown there in critical condition, and a 13-year-old girl was en route in serious condition. Hospital spokesman Eric Finley says information from nurses treating the boy indicates he was the shooter's target.
 
A student who witnessed the shooting says the shooter was a boy who she thought was being bullied. Eighth grader Odiee Carranza says it happened in the school gym. She says the boy shot the 14-year-old twice in the face, and shot the girl in the arm.
 
Carranza says the boy then fired a shot into the sky before dropping the gun. A teacher then grabbed him.
Published in National News
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 04:19

Albuquerque voters reject late-term abortion ban

   ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — In a closely watched, first-of-its kind municipal election, voters in New Mexico's largest city have soundly defeated a ban on late-term abortions.

   Voters on Tuesday rejected the measure 55 percent to 45 percent following an emotional and graphic campaign that brought in national groups and hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising. The campaign included protests that compared abortion to the Holocaust and displayed pictures of aborted fetuses.

   A coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Planned Parenthood, called the results a huge victory for Albuquerque women and families.

   "Albuquerque families sent a powerful message today_they do not want the government interfering in their private medical decisions," Micaela Cadena with the Respect ABQ Women campaign said in a statement. "Dangerous, unconstitutional laws like the one we rejected today have no place in Albuquerque, no place in New Mexico, no place anywhere in our nation."

   NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said, "We hope today's resounding defeat of this abortion ban sends a clear message to the extreme forces around the country now trying to impose their agenda on cities around this country. "

   Activists on both sides of the issue said it was the first municipal ballot measure on the matter, which usually is debated at the state and federal level. Abortion opponents had hoped that a victory in Albuquerque would create momentum in their long-running fight to ban abortion.

   Father Frank Pavone, national director of the New York-based Priests for Life, said Tuesday night that anti-abortion activists should not be discouraged.

   "It is a brilliant strategy and we will see to it that this effort is introduced in other cities and states," he said in a statement. "The fact is, of course, that children have in fact been saved through this effort, simply because we have raised the issue of fetal pain, which does not even cross the minds of many abortionists."

   Much of the campaign focused on the debate over when and whether fetuses can feel pain.

   Albuquerque became the focus of the latest anti-abortion campaign because it is home to Southwestern Women's Options, one of just a handful of clinics in the country that perform late-term abortions. The proposal would have banned abortions after 20 weeks except to save the mother's life.

   A leader of the initiative, Tara Shaver, said her group gathered signatures to put the issue to voters after failing to make headway in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

   Asked if other cities with late-term abortion clinics might be targeted in the future, Shaver said, "We are encouraging people to see what can be done at the city level. ... We are starting to get calls from people asking us how to do what we have done."

   Police were stationed near polling places Tuesday as protesters from both sides tried to persuade voters who were lining up before the polls closed. One school reported an hour wait.

   Michelle Halfacre said she cast her ballot in favor of the proposal, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks except to save the mother's life.

   "I had an abortion when I was young, and I regret it," Halfacre said. "I don't believe in it."

   But Jonathan Cottrell, a crisis hotline volunteer, said he voted against the proposal because he believes it marks the beginning of a "slippery slope to ban abortion in general."

   "I feel that women have the right to choose what to do to their body," Cottrell said.

Published in National News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A pair of New Mexico state police officers are under investigation and a mother and her 14-year-old son are facing charges after a routine traffic stop turned to chaos with the teen physically confronting one officer and another firing shots at a minivan carrying children.

Details of the recent stop emerged when KRQE-TV obtained dashboard camera video of the police cruiser that pulled the family of six over for speeding near the northern New Mexico tourist town of Taos.

The Oct. 28 footage showed driver Oriana Farrell disobey the officer's orders and drive off during the stop.

The 39-year-old Tennessee mother was pulled over again and the video shows two of her five children get out of the vehicle to confront the officer.

The mother and teenage son were arrested after a brief chase. She has since been released. It's unclear whether her son remains in custody.

Farrell's attorney didn't immediately return a call.

Published in National News

HILLSBORO, N.M. (AP) — Authorities say the search for nine teenagers reported missing from a New Mexico ranch for troubled youth will continue Saturday despite statements from the facility's attorney saying the boys were being returned to their parents.

State police said in a statement Saturday that they have information that one or more children have been returned to their parents but until they "can physically confirm their well-being" the search will continue and the Amber Alert issued for the teens stands.

A search warrant was executed Friday at the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program after allegations of beatings surfaced. The teens weren't at the 30,000-acre compound in Sierra County and neither was program operator Scott Chandler, a person of interest in the case.

Chandler denied the teenagers were harmed.

Published in National News
Sunday, 15 September 2013 09:53

Flooding in New Mexico turns fatal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Authorities say flooding has claimed a life in New Mexico.

State police say the body of a man was found yesterday in a partially submerged vehicle in Ash Canyon, about 150 miles from Albuquerque.

The death is the first related to massive flooding in New Mexico following record rains last week.

Gov. Susana Martinez issued a state of emergency on Friday to open up recovery funding for local communities hit hard by the flooding.

Published in National News

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