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State Sen. John Sapien (left), Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association President Ed Majka and state Rep. James Smith (right) meet after an ES-CA meeting called to discuss an oil well proposed for Rio Rancho.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Audience members listen to comments on the exploratory oil well proposed near Rio Rancho during a meeting of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) in Placitas.
Photo credit: —Susan Fullas

Group presses oil-drilling delay; county faults driller’s proposal

—Bill Diven

The prospect of oil wells sprouting around Rio Rancho is drawing calls for a moratorium on drilling within ten miles of the basin that supplies the city and nearby communities with drinking water.

Meanwhile, the Sandoval County planning staff in late January reversed its earlier position in support of special zoning to allow SandRidge Exploration and Production of Oklahoma City to explore for oil four miles west of Rio Rancho. The staff, citing a lack of information on what happens if exploration leads to production, recommended the application be denied.

A second public hearing on the zoning application was scheduled for January 28 after the Signpost deadline.

Earlier in the month, the Placitas-based Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association joined other critics of the SandRidge plan in arguing for a moratorium to give Sandoval County time to develop an ordinance regulating oil and gas development. This first well would open the door for more, they say, and new regulations would protect residents and the groundwater while limiting taxpayer costs for expenses like road damage and added fire protection.

“As we have seen in the past, adopting ordinances to regulate an activity, after that activity is in full operation, has resulted in lawsuits and adverse effects on the populace,” ES-CA President Ed Majka said in a January 12 letter to County Manager Phil Rios.

Rios replied, saying it’s up to the Planning and Zoning Commission to act on the SandRidge application and the County Commission to decide on any new ordinances. The County Commission also gets the last word on P&Z Commission decisions, although anyone unhappy with the outcome can appeal to District Court.

Nearly one hundred people attended an ES-CA meeting in Placitas on January 9 where the SandRidge proposal was compared to the lightly regulated gravel mines in western Placitas. The largest mine dating to the 1970s before zoning regulations were in place is the subject of a lawsuit over later agreements intended to limit its operations and lifespan.

“There’s a common theme of lack of understanding of what needs to be regulated and the people to do it,” ES-CA Vice President Bob Gorrell said.

During the first P&Z Commission hearing on the SandRidge well in December, planning staff said the county lacks the in-house expertise to examine environmental, health, and safety issues related to oil and gas production. They instead defer to state agencies, although an official of the state Oil Conservation Division testified that his agency leaves local concerns like hours of operation, noise, and dust controls and access by emergency services to the counties.

P&Z commissioners recessed the hearing until January 28 to hear more testimony before approving, denying, or delaying the application. The planning staff initially recommended approving the exploratory well but said SandRidge should file a second application for special-use zoning before beginning production on the site. SandRidge, however, wanted both exploration and production covered under a single permit and submitted additional information after the hearing.

That led to a second staff report recommending denial of the application and citing a need for additional information on several issues including safety, financial assurances, and road maintenance. The Rio Rancho Fire Department, for example, lacks the firefighting foam used on oil-well fires and likely would want more than the one hundred thousand dollars the county already pays the city annually for fire protection in that area, which lacks a county fire station, according to the report.

SandRidge proposes to sink a 10,500-foot well in a platted but undeveloped section of Rio Rancho Estates. Two New Mexico companies working with Sand-Ridge have leased 55,000 privately owned acres for energy exploration from a subsidiary of the development company that founded Rio Rancho.

SandRidge already has a drilling permit from the state Oil Conservation Division for two acres of a forty-acre tract but needs the special-use zoning permit from the county to proceed. The drilling site is within two miles of two Rio Rancho wells set at depths of 1,500 and 1,900 feet and the approved location for a third well. The city, which has agreed to sell water to SandRidge for the exploration, requested additional safeguards when drilling punches through the fresh-water zones.

In a letter to county planners, a city official said the Rio Rancho water system relies solely on groundwater with the three wells combined representing nearly a quarter of the city’s permitted supply. Groundwater in this part of the state comes from the broad rift valley extending from the Sandia Mountains to west of Rio Rancho.

State regulations require nonstop drilling through fresh-water zones followed by the installation of a cemented casing. Rio Rancho also is calling for increased monitoring of the casing and for tracers to track the flow of chemical fluids if hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is used in the exploration or production.

Also at issue is the volume of water used in fracking with a recent New Mexico Tech study finding an average of one million gallons consumed in developing wells in the San Juan Basin between Cuba and the Four Corners.

“The water is not reusable; it’s a toxic waste,” Placitas resident Mike Neas said during the ES-CA meeting. “This is a Placitas concern. If one well passes, we won’t be able to stop the rest.”

ES-CA also raised questions about the financial stability of SandRidge as the crashing price of oil, recently below thirty dollars a barrel from over one hundred in 2014, roils the entire industry. SandRidge saw its stock fall as low as five cents a share, and in January it laid off 226 of 260 workers in one of its service units.

The company also is in a dispute with the state of Oklahoma over returning “produced water” from drilling back into the ground through injection wells. The process is suspected of causing the rash of minor but occasionally damaging earthquakes now afflicting that state.

In its application, SandRidge said the exploratory well would use a closed-loop system to contain wastewater for trucking to a licensed disposal site. The Oil Conservation Commission currently regulates 5,300 injection wells in the state used for saltwater disposal and other purposes, according to the OCD website.

The Signpost contacted SandRidge for comment on its financial situation and the possible moratorium. Sand-Ridge executive vice president Duane Grubert responded saying the company would not be commenting until after the P&Z Commission acts on the zoning application.


Plan to monitor Placitas pipelines moves toward tax vote

Signpost Staff

Placitas property owners can expect a ballot in the mail in early April to vote on supporting a program to monitor petroleum-related pipelines running through the community.

The project organized by Las Placitas Association would install monitoring wells in the pipeline corridors from which air samples would be checked for leaks contaminating the soil. The goal is to protect Placitas groundwater and property values and to create a public source of information independent of the three companies operating the five pipelines.

“Giving operators control over this safety measure is just another form of self-regulation, which the pipeline operators already have,” LPA board member Dwight Patterson, who is heading the project, said in a letter being mailed to Placitas residents.

LPA is seeking state or private funding to install dozens of small wells sunk about twenty feet deep and will ask Placitas taxpayers to cover the monitoring costs through their property taxes. LPA’s research estimates the cost of monitoring and Sandoval County oversight at less than twenty dollars per year per property, a number to be refined and specified on the ballot.

Patterson earlier told the Signpost that the result of the election would gauge support for the project as LPA seeks funding for the wells. The ballot also will state the property tax will only go into effect if the wells are installed.

LPA said it has been working with the county, which in turn has received approval from the Bureau of Land Management to install the wells close to the pipelines. The county also would act as fiscal agent for the project, contract for the drilling and monitoring, and make the monitoring data available.

Five high-pressure pipelines run through Placitas, sharing a corridor for not quite two miles from Interstate 25 to the Placitas Open Space. From there, a crude-oil line turns southeast toward Camino de las Huertas and State Route 165, passing near the Placitas village and the elementary school.

Four lines carrying natural gas liquids, petroleum distillates, refined fuels, and carbon dioxide lead east from the open space buried beside and beneath Las Huertas Creek leaving the valley along Diamond Tail Road.

The crude-oil line, sixty years old and shut down in 2009, was inspected, tested, and returned to service early in 2015 following the upgrade of a pumping station in what is now a residential area at Camino de las Huertas and Pine D Rancho Road. LPA notes two hundred feet of the line next to NM 165 failed during pressure testing and had to be replaced.

Pressure tests likely stressed other parts of the pipeline, Patterson said in his letter.

Minor leaks in the carbon dioxide line were reported in 2004 and 2009, according to federal records, and a maintenance accident in 1999 damaged the oil line then under one of its previous owners. That incident on Santa Ana Pueblo east of I-25 spilled about 3,400 gallons over two acres and into an arroyo.

The Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) also is tracking Placitas pipelines and has met with Western Refining and Kinder-Morgan, which operate the oil and CO2 lines respectively. It has yet to meet with Mid-American Pipeline, operator of the three fuel and gas-liquids lines.

“We need to develop trust,” ES-CA President Ed Majka said during a January meeting that drew nearly one hundred people to hear about and discuss pipeline and gravel issues and an exploratory oil well proposed near Rio Rancho. “Most breaks are human-caused. It’s not usually deterioration… The main issue is to assure the safety of our aquifer.”

Both ES-CA and LPA have said getting information on the pipelines and their products has been difficult to impossible.

Mid-American recently notified ES-CA and LPA that it plans maintenance work at a pipeline station in western Placitas on or around March 28, possibly at night. That work involves removing an inspection device known as a “pig” that travels through the line checking for defects.

While there will be truck traffic to the site, no excavation or flaring of product will take place, although nonflammable nitrogen gas will replace the fluids in the line during the work, according to the company.


Bernalillo council seats, judgeship up for election

—Bill Diven

Voters in Bernalillo have choices to make on March 1 as they elect two town councilors and a municipal judge.

Current Councilors Ronnie Sisneros and Marian Jaramillo are campaigning to retain their seats while facing challenges from James Gill, Chris Rau Córdova and Mark Lopez. Councilors are elected at-large, so the two candidates with the most votes win.

Municipal Judge Sharon Torres is also running for re-election, opposed by former Judge Alonzo Lucero and Geoffrey Rinaldi.

Sisneros, seeking a fourth four-year term, is a former Sandoval County Assessor who still works in that office. He said that the current council and mayor work well together on issues from upgrading the aging water system to protecting businesses as the state prepares to widen U.S. Highway 550. The town continues to improve flood control and attract new residents and businesses, he added. “I love this town,” he said. “I grew up here, and I want to see a good future for our people and our kids.”

Jaramillo, who owns Marian’s Child Development Center, is also running for a fourth term. She cited strategic planning as the way to assure positive long-term growth for the town. “I believe decisions made today will affect our children tomorrow,” she said. “I would be cautious in supporting large growth that would create more traffic and pose a health-and-safety risk to our residents.”

Córdova, an economist and community planner, traces family roots to Cabezón and said Bernalillo’s lifestyle and central location brought him to the town. He turned long-closed boot shop on Camino del Pueblo into his home and a headquarters for his business, Southwest Planning. He recently organized a group of business people working to revive a MainStreet program, which now must be led by the business community instead of local government.

One of his goals is to protect the “real Bernalillo,” the historic downtown, to preserve the culture and encourage businesses to stay and grow. Another is job creation focused on new businesses that pay a living wage. “Young people are leaving our town,” he said. “A strong, vibrant economy supports health, safety, and youth issues.”

Lopez comes from a tradition of service in Bernalillo where his mother was the town clerk for more than thirty years, and one of his sisters served on the town council. He took early retirement from PNM and currently works for the county assessor.

He said he’s approaching the council seat with an open mind on what needs to be done rather than a formal platform. “Our little town has grown by leaps and bounds,” Lopez said. “My main thing is to get people more interested in the town and what’s happening here. Let’s be united again.”

Jim Gill is presently employed as a water treatment consultant at Culligan Water Conditioning, Inc. If elected, he said, “I would try to institute term limits of eight years for elected officials, bring new businesses to Bernalillo to fill the many empty commercial buildings throughout the town, establish a dedicated street department to maintain our roads, and enforce stricter zoning laws on unoccupied lots.

Municipal Judge Sharon Torres, completing her second full term after previous service as an alternate judge, said she’s learned a lot in eight years and applies the law to the best of her ability and without favor. She also has a new appreciation for the clerical side of the court after the loss of experienced clerks and a breakdown in operations led the state Supreme Court to intervene two years ago and appoint District Court judges to mentor her. “To have [them] come in and guide me has been a wonderful experience, and I am confident in court,” Torres said. “I do want to continue giving back to my community. Not just people of Bernalillo but people passing through.”

The Supreme Court also found several cases where suspects arrested on low-level warrants were released without proper hearings, which denied them due process, and another case that Torres should not have heard since it involved a cousin, according to her agreement with the Supreme Court and Judicial Standards Commission.

Lucero is running to return to the judgeship he held from 2000 to 2007 when he stepped down to deal with a now-resolved health issue. Torres then took over the court, and Lucero is currently her alternate judge.

He said part of the job is helping people and that he told the police chief that not everyone who gets pulled over needs to be cited into court. “Sometimes you can do more good by giving a warning,” Lucero said. “If they have any sense they take your warning. After a while you know who’s going to take advantage of a judge or a police officer.”

The Signpost was unable to contact judgeship candidate Rinaldi.


Sandoval County municipalities hold elections

Signpost Staff

In addition to Bernalillo, voters in Jemez Springs, Corrales, Cuba, and Rio Rancho also go to the polls on March 1.

Jemez Springs village Trustees David Ryan and Pamela Barber-Grider are running unopposed for re-election to four-year terms, while incumbent Trustee Suzette Walker faces Roger Sweet, a former trustee, for a two-year term.

In the village of Corrales all candidates are running unopposed for four-year terms with George Wright seeking the District 2 council seat currently held by Hoyt Hart and Councilors James Fahey Jr. and Pat Clauser running for the District 5 and 6 seats respectively. Michelle Frechette is running for the municipal judgeship held by Luis Quintana, who did not file for re-election.

Cuba village Councilor Celia Delgado is running unopposed for re-election while Monica Olivas also faces no opposition for the council seat currently held by Lee Ramirez.

In Rio Rancho, voters will be selecting three city councilors and deciding whether to issue nine million dollars in property-tax bonds for road construction and maintenance. Two incumbent councilors, Chuck Wilkins in District 1 and Mark Scott in District 4, are not running, while Councilor Lonnie Clayton drew three challengers in District 6.

JoAnne C. Dudley, Joshua Hernandez, and former Mayor Jim Owen are running in District 1, and the candidates in District 4 are former Councilor Marlene Feuer, Ron E. Hensley, and Ryan Parra.

Opposing Clayton in District 6 are former councilor and county commissioner David L. Bency, Cris Balzano, and Chris J. Vanden-Heuvel.


Chamber announces Town of Bernalillo candidate forum

—Susan Sheridan, Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce

The Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce is pleased to announce the sponsorship of a Town of Bernalillo Candidate Forum.

The Candidate Forum is scheduled for Wednesday, February 17 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Workforce Connection Community Room at the Bernalillo Rail Runner Station at 301 Rail Runner Avenue, in Bernalillo. Doors will open at 6:00 p.m. 

“This is an opportunity for the public to meet and hear the candidates for the Town of Bernalillo Councilor position and the Municipal Judge position,” said Rio Rancho Regional Chamber President Debbi Moore. “She added, “We look forward to learning about the candidate position on the important issues facing the Town of Bernalillo”.

For more information on this forum, contact Paul Barabe at 505-999-1832 or pbarabe@rrrcc.org.


Democratic Party of Sandoval County selects delegates

—Jerry Saxton

In response to the call from the Democratic Party of New Mexico, and in accordance with DPNM State rule 9-2.D, a Call is hereby issued for the Pre-Primary Nominating Convention. Sandoval County will select 74 delegates at the County meeting listed below. State Central Committee Members are automatic delegates to the County and State Conventions and are not a part of the delegates listed below.

Ward A meeting will be held on February 13 at the Bernalillo Town Hall, 829 Camino del Pueblo. Registration is at 9:30 a.m., and attendees must arrive by 10:00 a.m. to participate. Ward A will elect twenty delegates.

The Precincts in Ward A are: 1, 2, 3, 4 in Bernalillo; 5 (Placitas), 6 (Algodones), 7 (Peña Blanca), 8 (Cochiti Pueblo), 9 (San Felipe Pueblo), 10 (Cochiti Lake), 14 (Zia Pueblo), 19 (Santa Ana Pueblo) 20 (Santo Domingo Pueblo), 28 (La Madera), 29 (Sandia Pueblo), 55 and 56 (Placitas) 74 (Bernalillo and Rio Rancho), 76 (Placitas), 78 (La Cueva), and 79 (Sierra Los Pinos).

 
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