New Mexico soldier killed in non-combat incident in Africa

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico Army National Guard soldier from Mountainair, who served as a police officer and volunteer firefighter in the town, died Thursday from a non-combat related incident while deployed in Africa, according to the Department of Defense.
A news release states Pfc. Walter Lewark, 26, died at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti where he was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in the Horn of Africa.
The DOD does not elaborate on how Lewark died, but the release said they are investigating the incident. Full credits ABQ Journal.

Report: New Mexico refinery emitting high levels of chemical

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An oil refinery in southeast New Mexico is one of 10 facilities in the country releasing high levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene, a report said.
The Holly Frontier Navajo oil refinery in Artesia is emitting benzene levels four times the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level, the Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday.
Refineries with chemical levels above the federal action level are not violating federal law, but must take action to reduce the pollution, officials said.
“These results highlight refineries that need to do a better job of installing pollution controls and implementing safer workplace practices to reduce the leakage of this cancer-causing pollutant into local communities,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy organization for environmental regulations.
More than 3,000 people live within a mile of the refinery, officials said.
“Businesses are located directly across the road from the fenceline, and Roselawn Elementary School is located just 0.2 miles directly west of the highest reading monitor,” the report said.
Benzene is found in crude oil and used to manufacture plastics and pesticides, officials said. Full credits Associated Press.

28-year-old soldier from Las Cruces dies in Afghanistan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A solider from Las Cruces, New Mexico died in Afghanistan Saturday.
Sgt. 1st Class Antonio R. Rodriguez, 28, was wounded during Operation Freedom Sentinel in Nangarhar Province.
Rodriguez, who was born in Las Cruces and graduated from Mayfield High School, enlisted in the Army in 2009.
He deployed eight times with the 75th Ranger Regiment and twice with 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
“Sgt. 1st Class Rodriguez was selfless and served honorably; he was certainly among the best in our unit,” said Col. John W. Sannes, 7th Special Forces Group Commander. “Here at the Red Empire, we take care of our own, and Sgt. 1st Class Rodriguez’ family will forever be a part of us, we will assist them in any way we can to help them through these trying times.
Rodriguez was posthumously promoted to Sgt. 1st class from Staff Sgt and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. Copyright 2020 – KOB-TV LLC, A Hubbard Broadcasting Company.

New Mexico prosecutors review secretive state settlements

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — State and local prosecutors are reviewing the results of a special audit about secretive financial settlements under the past administration of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez that were used to resolve human rights complaints and other legal claims against public officials.
State Auditor Brian Colón told a Senate committee that his agency forwarded audit documents for possible criminal investigation to the office of the state attorney general and Santa Fe-based district attorney’s office, as well as the newly founded State Ethics Commission that handles noncriminal complaints.
A special audit from Colón’s office of 18 past settlements arranged by the state’s risk management division and contract attorneys found that two-thirds of the payouts lacked sufficient documentation or investigations. Some settlements were sealed until Martinez left office at the end of 2018 and appeared to be protecting the former Republican governor’s political legacy, Colón says.
Matt Baca, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the matter is actively under review. Santa Fe-based District Attorney Marco Serna could not immediately confirm the referral.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris said that the fledgling agency — authorized by voters in 2018 — does not have jurisdiction over government conduct that occurred before July 1, 2019. The seven-member commission holds its first public meeting Friday.
Contacted Tuesday, Martinez said she was never involved in any state settlement agreements made by the state risk management division.
“I was unaware,” she said. “I was not involved in any throughout my eight years (in office). It is a separate entity for which it would have been inappropriate for me to be involved.”
She declined to discuss the settlement process further or comment on calls for reforms.
Legislators are considering a bill from Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque that would eliminate a state mandated 180-day delay in the publication of state settlements and require that future administrations continue the new practice of publishing settlements to the state’s online information clearinghouse.
Among $2.7 million in settlements flagged for irregularities, the state has acknowledged it previously paid $900,000 to three State Police officials. That payment resolved a lawsuit alleging discriminatory, lewd behavior and retaliation by former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, who has said he urged the administration to investigate claims further.
“We identified the confidentiality provisions intended to completely circumvent the process,” Colón, a Democrat, told a panel of legislators. “That may or may not constitute criminal behavior but was a clear abuse of power.”
A separate internal audit of settlement procedures has turned up procurement violations during the final six months of the Martinez administration as lawsuits against state officials were assigned to outside defense attorneys whose contracts with the state had expired, according to General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz. His agency’s risk management division provides legal defense to state officials.
Ortiz, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, says 24 cases were assigned to legal firms without valid contracts in the July-September 2018 period for legal fees in excess of $100,000.
Ortiz said changes have been made so that all state settlement agreements are now accompanied by a “litigation risk analysis” that provides an overview of accusations, explores potential jury awards and provides a recommended settlement value. Settlements above $200,000 require cabinet-level authorization, he said.
Democratic state Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe pressed for details about which officials authorized settlements in the final months of the Martinez administration, and wondered aloud whether taxpayer funds might be restored.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test to say the least,” he said. “Is there any option for the taxpayer to recuperate those amounts?” Full Credits Associated Press

Snow, wind, cold: Winter weather coming to New Mexico

NEW MEXICO: Albuquerque meteorologists from the National Weather Service are tracking a storm system slated to bring much colder temperatures, high winds and snow to the Land of Enchantment on Monday (Feb. 3) and Tuesday.
Meteorologists said strong to damaging southwest winds will precede the snowfall, impacting areas near and south of Interstate 40 as well as the Chuska Mountains in northwestern New Mexico with gusts between 50 and 65 mph, weather officials said.
Snow will favor northern and western New Mexico Monday afternoon through Tuesday, according to NWS officials, who predict the heaviest snow amounts across the northern mountains, where up to 10 inches of snow is possible.
Meanwhile, a potent cold front will arrive Monday afternoon, meteorologists added, with temperatures plummeting across northwest New Mexico Monday afternoon through early Tuesday morning.
“Whatever your coldest night of the winter has been thus far, will likely be matched Wednesday morning as the weather clears out,” according to a NWS statement.

Ex-NBA star Kobe Bryant dies in helicopter crash

LOS ANGELES: Kobe Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday. He was 41.
Bryant died in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. It was unclear if family members were on the helicopter. The crash happened around 10 a.m. near about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said it was a Sikorsky S-76 and it was not known what caused the crash.
Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific scorer with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ LeBron James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.
“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.”
Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game’s most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.
He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He later teamed with Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010. Full Credits AP.

State of New Mexico to pay newspaper $360K for legal fees

SANTA FE, N.M. The state of New Mexico has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a weekly newspaper in Santa Fe that accused former Gov. Susana Martinez of discrimination and violating the state’s public records law.
Last year’s $360,000 settlement to The Santa Fe Reporter became public last week after the expiration of a six-month confidentiality period imposed by state law, The Albuquerque Journal reported Friday.
The agreement comes after the newspaper won a court ruling in 2017 that said the Martinez administration violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act and was to pay $400,000 in attorney fees the next year, officials said.
The Reporter was seeking records related to pardons, emails and the governor’s calendar, the newspaper said.
The Reporter also filed a separate claim unsuccessfully accusing the administration of illegally denying access to information provided to other news outlets.
Martinez appealed.
The state agreed to drop the appeal after an agreement was reached in June, officials said.
The amount paid is for attorney fees and costs, not damages, and represents a compromise to avoid further litigation, the settlement said. Full Credits AP.

New Mexico fines Air Force $1.7 million over groundwater

CLOVIS, NM- The New Mexico Environment Department on Thursday assessed the U.S. Air Force a nearly $1.7 million fine for not complying with rules aimed at protecting groundwater.
The agency claims Cannon Air Force Base has released wastewater despite not having a permit since March 2019.
State officials are concerned because the base near Clovis is among dozens of military installations around the U.S. where contamination from past firefighting activities has been reported. The contamination is linked to chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
“The Air Force continues to ignore New Mexico’s environmental laws,” said James Kenney, head of the Environment Department. “Rather than address PFAS contamination, the Department of Defense shows no interest in helping afflicted communities and impacted natural resources.”
Officials at Cannon did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about the state’s compliance order or the civil penalty.
The state in 2018 began regulating for PFAS chemicals. As part of the program, certain entities with groundwater discharge permits began monitoring for and disclosing the presence of the chemicals.
Since the base’s permit expired, the state said on multiple occasions it notified the Air Force that PFAS monitoring was required. To remedy the violations, the state says the Air Force must submit an application for a new permit and pay the penalty within 30 days.
State officials say if the Air Force doesn’t comply, it could face additional penalties of up to $25,000 a day.
The state currently is in a legal battle with the Air Force over PFAS contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo. New Mexico sued last April, saying the military has a responsibility to clean up the toxic chemicals.
Air Force officials have said previously that they have been working with regulators to identify and implement long-term solutions to prevent exposure. Full Credits Associate Press

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