Sandoval Signpost

 

An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front
 

State inspection alleges Lafarge violations—
Mine runs afoul of Environment Department

—Bill Diven

Complaints from the neighbors about blowing dust have the state Environment Department considering enforcement actions against the Lafarge North America gravel mine in western Placitas.

Two inspectors visiting the quarry reported possible violations of Lafarge’s construction permit, New Mexico Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester confirmed to the Signpost.

“They included failure by Lafarge to keep certain operating records and failure to adequately control particulate emissions to meet permit requirements,” Winchester said. “This case is currently being referred to our enforcement section for action.”

The complaint to the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau was made on March 18, and the inspection occurred on April 1. The lead inspector then contacted Lafarge requesting corrective action, and Lafarge’s environmental manager later reported some corrective actions had begun, Winchester said.

By Signpost deadline for this edition, Lafarge had not responded to a request for comment on the alleged violations and how the company is responding to them.

The property leased by Lafarge covers 840 acres and has a mining history dating back decades under previous operators. Lafarge and Sandoval County are currently locked in a lawsuit over whether Lafarge is in violation of agreements that regulate its expansion and set a closing date for the operation.

“The issue is that when the winds blow, with the amount of disturbed area they’ve got, it’s going to blow the stuff into our houses,” said Dick Ullmer, a quarry neighbor and chairman of the Land Use Protection Trust recently established by the Eastern Sandoval-Citizens Association. Water trucks have appeared since the state inspected the facility, but that is of little help when the wind blows at night, Ullmer said.

Technical monitoring for air quality has been a problem in large part because the only state monitor in the area is three miles upwind in the state Department of Transportation yard near downtown Bernalillo. The location is in the valley, with prevailing winds blowing past the monitor, toward the quarry.

“What we need is some monitoring on the windward side, the side the wind traditional blows,” Ullmer continued. However the Environment Department says there’s no place to put one of its monitors since it needs to be on state land, he added.

Air quality is not the only gravel issue surfacing in Placitas. ES-CA is also looking into Lafarge’s water consumption, which in 2013 totaled 94 million gallons, according to reports submitted to the Office of the State Engineer. That amount is within its leased water rights and allows for possibly an additional twenty million gallons of pumping, according to ES-CA.

“The river is going dry, and they don’t seem to be able to figure out why,” said Mike Neas, who’s researching water issues for ES-CA. “Nobody’s even mentioning the water guzzlers next to the river… My contention is moving mining away from the river corridors and farther away. Yes, it increases production costs, but in order for us to survive, we’ve got to manage our water better than that.” [See Gauntlet, this Signpost.]

Applying a state figure of average per-person use of sixty gallons of water a day to the approximately six-thousand people in Placitas yields a total annual consumption of just over 131 million gallons a year. That figure, however, may be high, given water-conservation methods used by many to keep wells producing.

Lafarge’s use also equals about one-sixth of the domestic water pumping by 31 water associations and municipalities across Sandoval County including the city of Rio Rancho, according to metered numbers reported to the State Engineer in 2010.

Water also creates a blowing-dust issue as solids drawn up by the pumping, likely including naturally occurring arsenic, remain as water spread on the quarry evaporates, Neas added.

Gravel mining, pipelines, water, the U.S. 550/I-25 interchange project, and Bureau of Land Management lands in Placitas are on the agenda for an ES-CA general meeting scheduled from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., on August 2, at the Anasazi Fields Winery in Placitas. The meeting is open to the public and includes an open-mic session to bring up any other issues, ES-CA President Bob Gorrell said.

The BLM Rio Puerco Field Office is about to become the center of multiple concerns and controversies in the coming months as a Resource Management Plan affecting Placitas is released. The plan, now expected to be released in December or January, covers an area from the Arizona border near Gallup into east-central New Mexico and juts north to include the southern Jemez and Cuba.

Competing interests, from gravel miners to horse lovers and pueblos to land-grant activists, are expected to surface with their own goals for two BLM parcels. One is two hundred acres northwest of Placitas village, the other: 3,200 acres east of I-25 and bordering San Felipe Pueblo (known as the Buffalo Tract).

During the 2012 session of the Legislature, Placitas resident Marty Clifton won approval of a $45,000 dollar appropriation for the state to buy the Buffalo Tract and preserve it for public uses under the federal Recreation and Public Purchase Act. However, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the money, citing, in part, lack of consensus among Placitas residents about what to do with the land. [See Gauntlet, this Signpost.]

“The most important one is to eliminate any potential gravel mining or resource development of other kinds in the Buffalo Tract,” Clifton told the Signpost. “I’m not anti gravel mining. I just don’t think it should happen in the near vicinity of residential and town areas… It’s just not good, and in particular it’s not good for Placitas, since we have three or four other mines in the area.”

Meanwhile the RMP, which drew tens of thousands of public comments, is working its way through federal agencies for their final review.

“I’m sure once the RMP is decided upon, there will be an influx of requests, and we’ll go forward from there,” BLM Acting Field Manager John Brennan said. “No decisions can be made until the RMP is finalized.”

Gorrell said ES-CA plans to survey its three hundred members on their priorities for the BLM land and ask the BLM to put protective covenants on the land should it go into other hands. It would also be a statement from a “good sample set” of Placitas residents to the BLM as to what they think is important.


Court ruling allows NMLB to impound estray horses

—Ty Belknap

On July 16 Judge Valerie A. Huling of the Second Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County ruled that under the New Mexico Livestock Code all horses are considered to be “livestock” and are subject to the estray impoundment procedure that continues to be used by residents in the Placitas area to remove feral horses from their properties. With that opinion, she dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA) against the New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB), and in which a dozen Placitas residents intervened in support of the Livestock Board.

The court’s ruling concluded, “Plaintiff’s claims fail to demonstrate that the horses at issue are not estray livestock and that the Board acted outside of its authority under the Livestock Code. Likewise, the Board is not required to treat the horses as wild horses under Section 77-18-5. Plaintiff therefore fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and dismissal is appropriate.”

Attorney Dave Reynolds of Placitas, who represented the intervening Placitas residents, said, “This decision is a victory for the land, water, and wildlife of Placitas, and gives us hope that eventually the Placitas environment can recover from the devastation that these feral horses have caused over the past several years. The decision affirms that residents here can do more than simply stand by and watch helplessly as feral horses destroy their property.”

The residents who intervened in the case back the Livestock Code impoundment procedure as the only viable remedy for environmental damage and public safety issues created by free-roaming horses with unlimited population and range. They agreed with the NMLB contention that WHOA was attempting to re-litigate issues that have already been decided against WHOA by the federal court in the WHOA v. BLM litigation that was filed in 2011.

In an emailed message to the Signpost, WHOA president Patience O’Dowd stated, “WHOA is currently reviewing appeal options. NM’s wild horse statute distinguishes between horses that are livestock and horses that are wild, yet the July 16 opinion by Valerie Huling, Albuquerque District Court Judge, fails to take that distinction into account, and simply calls all horses livestock. Placitans are invited to check whoanm.org for updates.”

In July, residents of Placitas Ranchettes subdivision, impounded three horses in a portable corral, then called the NMLB and the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office. Before the NMLB or SCSO arrived, Gary Miles of Placitas Animal Rescue confronted resident Bob Woodall on land posted as private property, demanding that the horses be released. According to the SCSO incident report, an exchange of harsh words preceded a scuffle that caused minor injuries to both men. Miles reportedly then pulled the corral apart and released the horses before driving away. Several SCSO vehicles responded to the scene, along with Sandoval County Rescue.

Miles was charged with battery and criminal trespass in connection with the incident. Woodall is facing a misdemeanor charge of aggravated battery with no great bodily harm. Both are scheduled to appear in Bernalillo Magistrate Court on August 7.

Miles, who is running as a Republican for the District 1 Sandoval County Commission seat, has taken possession of about sixty horses over the past year, using the NMLB impoundment process, yet he has been a vocal advocate for the horses to continue roaming free. Charges of bribery of a witness against him are pending in District Court, alleging that he acted illegally when demanding that a Placitas couple drop charges against one of his supporters before he would allow them to adopt some of the horses. Miles is also suing another Placitas resident, claiming she violated the agreement she made when she adopted horses from him. Miles declined comment to the Signpost on these issues. For information about donations and horse adoption visit parnm.org.

Also in July, City of Albuquerque Open Space Division superintendent Matt Schmader told the Signpost that the official northeast entrance to the 560-acre Placitas Open Space was chained and locked because someone had attempted to reintroduce free-roaming horses into the Open Space. He said, “Regardless of how private individuals feel public land should be used, it has to be managed according to regulations by public agencies. Livestock grazing is not permitted in the Placitas Open Space.”

Schmader said that hikers and mountain bikers can still use this access, but would have to go through the fence until another method of gating is developed. Equestrian users are fenced out of this entrance.

Sandoval County recently paid over $23,000 to sponsor a task force that failed to reach consensus on a political solution to the ongoing problem. New Mexico First has posted a list of possible solutions at: nmfirst.org/_blog/ Legislative_Updates/post/free-roaming-horses-of-placitas-task-force-offers-potential-solutions/.

The horse population has been significantly reduced over the past year, due mostly to the actions of Miles and the ad hoc group that has impounded about twenty horses. About sixty horses remain in the far northern areas of Placitas where they appear well fed and watered by people who like having them around. About forty horses continue to live in the barren hills of BLM land near I-25 where they are sustained by residents of Sundance Mesa.

Another group called Placitas Wild that takes a more middle-of-the-road position are seeking consensus on managing a limited number of herds that would continue to roam freely. Placitas Wild is working on a website (www.placitaswild.com).

The ad hoc committee that takes a proactive approach to the horse problem has posted a blog called “Let Our Land Rest” at: letourlandrest.wordpress.com to present information and observations. Webmaster Peter Hurley said, “The blog is designed to give Placitans some facts in order that they can make up their own minds about how to deal with the free-roaming horses and the people who are keeping them in our communities.”


San Felipe Pueblo to discuss “Buffalo Tract” plans

On August 23, Ricardo Ortiz, a San Felipe Pueblo land manager, will discuss and answer questions about the tribe’s ongoing efforts to take possession of the 3,400 acre BLM “Buffalo Tract” north of Placitas. Maps and drawings of the proposal will be presented. Mining, wild horses, land preservation, land restoration, and maintaining a viable wildlife corridor to the Jemez Mountains and Galisteo Basin from the Crest of Montezuma will be considered.

Santa Ana Pueblo is also seeking the Act Of Congress required to transfer ownership of this land which abuts both reservations. Both tribes consider this part of their ancestral land. Both tribes propose using the land as a wildlife corridor. Both promise not to mine millions of dollars worth of sand and gravel. San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant also has claims on the land. The August 23 meeting is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church at 7 Paseo de San Antonio in Placitas.


Amtrak's Southwest Chief passes an antique semaphore signal in El Llanito  on its way through Bernalillo to Albuquerque. Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Amtrak’s northeast New Mexico line in jeopardy

—Bill Diven

Decisions made in three states and Washington in coming months will determine whether Amtrak’s Southwest Chief continues to roll twice a day through Bernalillo.

The train, which logged about 78,000 passenger arrivals and departures in Albuquerque last year, is at risk for shifting to a different route through Texas or possibly disappearing altogether. Meanwhile New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas are struggling to keep the train on its historic route over Raton Pass.

The issue is important enough to Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman that he arranged a special train to run from central Kansas to Albuquerque carrying railroad and public officials and drumming up support along the way to meet with community leaders. The group even made a driving detour to Philmont Scout Ranch where about a quarter of its 22,000 scouts arrive by train at nearby Raton each season.

The problem, of course, is money. Who will pay to upgrade the lightly used BNSF Railway line and its aging signal system, and how much will it actually cost?

A presentation last year by Amtrak’s state governmental relations chief estimated the New Mexico trackage would need $92.5 million dollars over ten years to upgrade and maintain the 197 miles of BNSF track it uses from Raton Pass to Lamy and from Isleta Pueblo to the BNSF main line at Dalies, west of Belen.

“The numbers we’ve been quoted are all over the place in terms of what it will cost every year,” New Mexico Secretary of Transportation Tom Church told the Signpost. “We certainly are pro-economic development and don’t want to lose the track, but we need to know the facts.”

Studies funded by the 2014 Legislature to assess costs and the legal question of spending public money on private railroad tracks should be ready in November, added Church, who rode with Boardman from Raton to Las Vegas.

“It was really nice to see the people and the support of the communities,” he continued. Despite some news coverage to the contrary, New Mexico is not dragging its feet, Church said.

Past statements from Gov. Susana Martinez’s office have said she is open to discussion although Amtrak is a federal creature that “should not stick New Mexico taxpayers with a large tab.”

Since 2011, Amtrak has been telling the states its contract to use the BNSF tracks expires in January 2016, and that a decision on state support would be needed by the end of this year so it can plan accordingly. An option, if the line is abandoned, is rerouting the Chicago-Los Angeles train to BNSF’s transcontinental freight line from eastern Kansas through Amarillo, Texas, and to Belen bypassing northeastern New Mexico.

Whether the Southwest Chief would also bypass Albuquerque is not clear, although Amtrak Media Relations Manager Marc Magliari did allow routing it from Belen to Albuquerque and back would be “problematic at best.”

“Our first priority is to keep what we have and operate what we have,” Magliari said after the New Mexico trip. “We need to have an idea of the way forward. We need to have some clarity on these issues.”

There is precedent for state support in North Dakota where Amtrak and the state partnered to upgrade a little-used freight line to avoid congestion and delays on a busier line, he added.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry compared the situation to the current overhaul of the Interstate 25-Paseo del Norte interchange in Albuquerque. There, when the federal government wouldn’t help, the city, county, and state stepped up paying for a scaled-down plan that still relieves the daily commuter tangle.

Perry met with Boardman during his visit and said he’s happy to take a leadership role and work with the legislature. However he cautioned any state funding should be spent within the state.

“If the feds don’t provide some of the resources, we’re going to have to figure it out,” Berry said. “It’s a big challenge. Let’s get our heads together.”

BNSF began clouding things about eight years ago after the state of New Mexico agreed to buy the line from Belen to Raton Pass for the Rail Runner Express commuter trains and future expansion. Then Gov. Bill Richardson touted how BNSF usage fees would help pay for maintenance, but instead BNSF shifted freight traffic to its transcontinental line through Amarillo, Texas, and Belen.

Now only Amtrak uses the track across southern Colorado and down to Lamy, and Gov. Susana Martinez last year backed out of the deal to buy the track from Lamy to Raton Pass.

The Kansas legislature hasn’t acted, although the city of Garden Grove has partnered with the BNSF and Amtrak to apply for a federal transportation grant. In Colorado, lawmakers approved a commission to looking into funding possibilities and a possible reroute to add Pueblo as a stop.

A bill to appropriate four million dollars a year for ten years for track and signal improvements passed the state House last session 47-12. Companion legislation in the Senate won a do-pass recommendation from on committee and then stalled in another.

“The track right now is in relatively good condition; the key is to make sure it stays that way,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told the Signpost after riding the Boardman Special. “Amtrak’s operating costs are a federal function and a function of their revenues. Having the states step up and cost-share on infrastructure to make the routes a success is really important.”

Heinrich, along with other Democrats in the state delegation, said he supports Amtrak as a connector of rural communities, a tool for economic development, and an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

An economic analysis prepared for the grassroots Southwest Chief Coalition studied the economics of the train in New Mexico and found it came mostly from tourism. The consulting firm estimated rail visitors created $29.3 million dollars annually in direct and indirect economic output, supported nearly four hundred jobs and generated more than two million dollars in state and local taxes.

Ford Robbins, chair of the coalition’s New Mexico section, said he sees a disconnect between the governor touting economic development, while not pressing to support the Southwest Chief.

“We have an economic-development engine in place, and if we were to continue the Chief, we would not lose where we are,” Robbins said. “Furthermore, we would give life to strong economic development in the corridor.”

Robbins said he’s heard rumblings of freight customers returning to the line particular at a rail-served landfill north of Wagon Mound now seeing only regional trucks.

Robbins disputed statements by some officials that New Mexico is ahead of Colorado and Kansas in addressing the issue.

“That is one of my frustrations,” he said. “Nobody’s further along that anybody else.”

Garden City’s grant application is under review, Colorado’s commission may be a year in reporting, and New Mexico’s studies won’t be done until shortly before the 2015 Legislature convenes, Robbins said.

 
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