Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front

Photo credit : —Bill Diven

A pickup truck all but vanishes after hitting storm runoff ponded on the northbound Interstate 25 exit to Placitas and Bernalillo.

Deluge floods part of I-25 Placitas exit

Signpost Staff

As Placitas residents discovered after a summer downpour, the newly overhauled Interstate 25-U.S. Highway 550 interchange contains a low spot deep enough for cars and trucks to vanish in the spray.

This revelation came just as project contractor FNF Construction Inc. neared its final we’re-done-and-outta-here moment, nearly nine months after the scheduled completion for the $17 million dollar job.

The new problem, however, is not the fault of FNF, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation. Instead NMDOT is calling it “an unforeseen drainage issue” not recognized during the design phase.

As NMDOT explained to the Signpost, a low spot remained from a previous project involving the northbound exit lanes to U.S. 550 and State Route 165, the latter the entrance to Placitas. No one noticed the issue because water simply drained away from traffic and off the pavement into the dirt.

The FNF project, however, required extending the existing barrier wall past the low spot creating a dam that trapped water from the July 27 deluge and flooded the shoulder and the right of the two exit lanes.

The fix is simple by highway construction standards. NMDOT says it plans to drill “weep holes” at the bottom of the wall and grade the fill behind the wall so the water has somewhere to go. At last report, it wasn’t known when that work will be done and whether NMDOT maintenance forces or an outside contractor will take care of it.

FNF was scheduled to do overnight work beginning August 18 to complete items on its punch list and perform the final cleanup of the project area. Negotiations to settle on damages assessed against FNF for the delay in completion have yet to begin, according to NMDOT.

Meanwhile a new field of orange barrels sprouted on U.S. 550 at Camino Don Tomas in Bernalillo. This is one of two town projects spending $1.1 million dollars to upgrade the intersections and intended to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety. The other is at Camino del Pueblo and Avenida Bernalillo.

Concerns from past projects on Camino Don Tomas recently led the Bernalillo Town Council to direct the police department to monitor the U.S. 550 intersection for motorists cutting through corner businesses to dodge traffic backups. Beyond safety concerns, that kind of shortcutting is a violation of state traffic laws, BPD Chief Tom Romero told councilors.

Board vacancy stymies flood-control bond issue

Signpost Staff

Inaction by the Martinez administration in filling a vacancy is being blamed for leaving the local flood-control authority in a tough spot.

With a deadline approaching to put a bond question on the November ballot, the board of directors of the Eastern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority was already down from three members to two. Then Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres suffered a heart attack, which led to the cancellation of the August 16 meeting with the bond question on the agenda.

That left only board Chairman Sal Reyes, who needs one other director present to create a quorum and vote on authority business. “We desperately need that other member,” he told the Signpost.

At Signpost deadline, it appeared Torres might be healthy enough to at least participate by telephone in a meeting on August 27. The bond question asks voters to approve up to $2.2 million dollars for flood-control projects for the authority that covers Bernalillo and Algodones.

The third seat became vacant in February after Director Ben Beck announced he was moving out of the district. Reyes and Torres then submitted the name of Sandoval County Commissioner Orlando Lucero to Gov. Susana Martinez’s office as his replacement.

Since then, Lucero and ESCAFCA Executive Engineer Larry Blair said they have made repeated attempts over the months to find out the status of the appointment but are only told it’s under consideration. The Signpost received a similar response.

“We are continuing to interview candidates for this position and hope to announce an appointment soon, and wish Commissioner Torres the best as he continues to recover,” Mike Lonergan, the governor’s press secretary, said in reply to an emailed query.

By deadline, Lonergan had yet to reply to a second query asking him to elaborate on whether there are more candidates than Lucero for the position.

“The governor has not signed off on it,” Lucero said. “I called the governor’s office, and they told me they’re working on it.”

“It’s really frustrating,” Blair added. “Now I’m in a pickle where I can’t get a quorum.”

Lucero, a Democrat, is leaving the county commission at the end of the year due to term limits. He ran against state Rep. James Roger Madalena in the Democratic primary in June but lost.

Martinez, a Republican, is running for re-election against Democratic Attorney General Gary King.

Photo credit:—Courtesy of N.M. Environment Dept.
This photo taken during an inspection of the Lafarge gravel mine in Placitas was released to the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association as part of a public-records request.

State yet to act on alleged violations at Lafarge quarry

—Bill Diven

The state Air Quality Bureau is still pondering whether to file violation notices and impose penalties over record-keeping and dust control at the Lafarge gravel mine in Placitas.

Whether the company is cited or not, complaints by neighbors prompted action by the New Mexico Environment Department. That in turn led to apparent changes in how Lafarge does business and manages dust on its 860-acre property, according to documents the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association obtained through a public-records request.

Controversy over the gravel mine is not new as residents of Anasazi Trails and other areas, for several years, have raised concerns about noise, air quality, and zoning issues to elected officials and local governments. Sandoval County is currently suing Lafarge, alleging the company is violating the 1988 zoning agreement that permits and restricts its operation.

But it wasn’t until April 1, after the Anasazi Trails Homeowners Association contacted the Air Quality Bureau, that the bureau dispatched two inspectors to examine the mine and its records. This apparently was the first time since 2007 that the bureau had checked the site off the Interstate 25 frontage road about two miles north of State Route 165, according to the documents ES-CA received under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

“It’s clear there has been a record-keeping problem in general,” said Dick Ulmer, president of the homeowners association. “Most notable is the thing we’ve been complaining about the most, and nobody is paying attention.”

That would be the blowing dust, which Lafarge is supposed to manage through watering, reclamation, and expansion restrictions, he said.

“Yes, there is less dust, but there’s also less wind and more rain,” Ulmer continued. “I’ve seen signs of a water truck from time to time, which we hadn’t seen before.

“There’s just so much disturbed area land with no visible signs of ground cover from reclaiming, I see no way they can keep up with it when the wind blows.”

In 2007, the state issued a notice of violation for not keeping two years of daily records, logging hours of operation, production rates, and how often water was applied to control dust. This year’s inspection yielded seven “Areas of Concern” that could lead to a violation notice and fines.

Again, recordkeeping is an issue as the inspectors reported Lafarge wasn’t tracking operating hours, how often water mixed with a chemical agent was applied to haul roads to reduce dust, and the times water spray bars used in production were inspected. Other absent records included gravel production, in tons, per hour, and the number of haul-road truck trips by hour, day, and year, according to the inspection report.

Additionally, Lafarge was failing to restrict and control public access to the property and was not watering cleared sites and active pits to control dust, the inspectors found.

Lafarge has not responded to requests for comment from the Signpost.

In late August, state Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester told the Signpost that Air Quality Bureau staff and department lawyers are still working on a final report. It’s too early to discuss possible penalties, he said.

The bureau is working aggressively, gathering input from multiple sources and reports Lafarge is cooperating, he added.

An internal bureau email, dated June 10, indicated a notice of violations was being prepared although the process was slowed by the complicated formula used to determine monetary penalties. It is not clear from the documents what has happened in the intervening ten weeks, although by Signpost deadline no notice of violation or penalties had been issued.

Among the ES-CA documents are letters and emails from a Lafarge regional environmental manager in Colorado detailing responses to the inspection findings. In a June 13 email, Christine Felz, Lafarge environment and public affairs manager, said she had spoken to the Placitas plant manager, operations manager, and general manager.

“I explained the urgent need to ensure we do not have dust coming from the pit,” she wrote. “They have decided to move one of our plant specialists to the site to help with making decisions about dust control. He will be on watch for high wind events and tell the plant manager when they need to shut down due to high winds.”

Lafarge also has talked about buying a water cannon to moisten the active mining area, she added. In an earlier letter, Felz listed steps being taken to comply with recordkeeping requirements.

After its inspection, the Air Quality Bureau asked for additional documents covering 2012-14 including “visual emissions observation records.” Lafarge replied that it did not take those observations although the available documents don’t specify whether that was required by Lafarge’s state-issued air quality permit.

The Environment Department declined a request from the Signpost to interview the chief of the Air Quality Bureau.

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres recovering from heart attack

—Bill Diven

If you must have a heart attack, there may be no better place for it than the White House.

That’s what Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres discovered after leading a group of town officials in meetings with the state’s congressional delegation at the Capitol on August 7. The next day, Torres suffered the heart attack while touring the White House with his wife Anna and son Carlos.

The White House medical team is credited with delivering prompt treatment.

“I was really, literally blessed that it did happen where it did,” Torres told the Signpost two weeks later. “I got treated so quickly. That was my saving grace.”

Torres was back in Bernalillo the next week and is recovering at home. While he feels good and is occasionally talking with or texting councilors and town staff, he’s trying to be patient and follow his doctors’ orders. For now it’s not known when he will return to Town Hall.

“My wife Anna and my family have been remarkable, and we’re just overwhelmed with all the cards and prayers and well wishes from so many people,” Torres said. “It’s fantastic and humbling. All the prayers have really been helpful.”

During the Capitol visits, Torres, Councilors Marian Jaramillo and Dale Prairie and Town Clerk and interim co-Administrator Ida Fierro met with Reps. Michelle Luján Grisham and Ben Ray Luján, Sen. Tom Udall and the staff of Sen. Martin Heinrich.

Their agenda covered town issues involving federal agencies and regulations. Among them $1.2 million dollars needed for a cross-river water line, the lack of oversight on crude-oil transport, converting private property to tribal lands with the loss of local tax revenue, Affordable Care Act requirements to insure part-time and grant-funded employees and nearly four hundred thousand dollars for the water system’s arsenic-treatment facility the town expected but didn’t receive from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The mayor was very articulate in representing us,” Mayor Pro-tem Jaramillo said while running the August 11 the council meeting. “If there are any discretionary funds, the delegation knows our needs.”

Jaramillo has assumed leadership of the town government and ripped through her first council meeting from Pledge of Allegiance to motion to adjourn in only 11 minutes.

“We have a wonderful staff,” she told the Signpost. “Pretty much everybody is taking on added responsibilities.”

Jaramillo said she consults with Torres daily.

“He’s recovering well but is taking it easy,” she said. “It is a big ordeal.”

On August 19, Jaramillo joined Gov. Susana Martinez and the New Mexico Chile Association at the Range Cafe to kick off the Save Our Chile campaign. The campaign stems from existing law making it illegal to falsely claim products are made with New Mexico chile. The Range was the first restaurant to sign up for the new certification program giving it a program logo to post and promote.

Among the items occupying town staff are:

  • Gearing up for the annual Bernalillo Wine Festival over Labor Day weekend and the Al Hurricane concert on September 7, raising funds for the town’s school supplies and kids coats drives.
  • Laying the groundwork for three news businesses: Church’s Chicken, which will begin construction soon on U.S. Highway 550 east of Camino Don Tomas, Chili’s Restaurant on State Road 528, and Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar on the southeast corner of U.S. 550 and Camino del Pueblo. Chili’s and Applebee’s both won conditional-use zoning approval in late July but have not applied for building permits or announced construction dates.
  • Establishing a moratorium on planning and zoning applications and building permits related to mining and oil and gas production and transportation to give the town staff up to four months to develop plans protecting both economic development and public safety. The move follows the opening and quick closure of a truck-to-rail operation (transloading crude oil) that opened without prior notice to the town.

Free-roaming horse roundups shift to BLM land

—Bill Diven

The number of horses roaming free in Placitas continues to dwindle after a recent roundup on Bureau of Land Management land.

The roundup, however, is not a direct result of the impound notice issued in July, according to John Brenna, acting field manager of the BLM’s Rio Puerco Field Office. “We haven’t gathered any animals,” he said.

The impound notice allows the removal without notice of “unauthorized livestock” found on BLM grazing lands, specifically the Las Huertas Grazing Allotment, 2,525 acres within the 3,100-acre Buffalo Tract in northwestern Placitas, and the Lomas Altos Allotment, 591 acres in northeastern Placitas. The order was signed by BLM acting District Manager Danita Burns on July 16 and took effect five days later.

“Since that time, we had a phone call from one of our (grazing) permitees saying he can’t use his allotment because there’s no forage,” Brenna told the Signpost. “He said there were a number of estray horses on his permitted parcel.”

The holder of the grazing lease, Al Baca, borrowed corral panels, and when BLM staff returned a few days later, ten horses were inside.

“They (BLM staff) walked up, and there were ten horses in the pen, eating and drinking, because they hadn’t anything else to eat or drink,” Brenna continued. “Our guys closed the gate and called [the New Mexico Livestock Board].”

As is typical with recent roundups, following failed lawsuits by wild-horse advocates, the horses are being treated as stray livestock. Under state law, an estray notice is published by the NMLB, and if an owner doesn’t claim the animals, they are auctioned, in this case at Southwest Livestock Auction in Los Lunas.

Advocates have argued the horses are wild, not stray, and in any case don’t meet the legal definition of livestock under state law.

According to the BLM, Placitas-based Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA) entered a sealed bid for the ten horses but was outbid by a purchaser who reportedly gave away two colts. WHOA then bought the eight remaining horses from the winning bidder, the BLM said.

The nonprofit Placitas Animal Rescue (PAR) has bought most, or all, of the horses collected here and sold as strays, and is currently caring for 52 “wild mustangs,” according to the PAR website. Gary Miles of PAR declined to comment on the recent auction, and the Signpost was unable to confirm independently who now has the eight bought from the winning bidder.

In other recent developments:

Sandoval County has yet to recruit a legislator to request an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office clarifying the jurisdiction of various state agencies involved with the Placitas horses. The clarification was one recommendation from the county-funded task force on free-roaming horses in Placitas, which submitted its report to the county on June 5.

Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies were called to the Placitas Open Space on August 3, during a confrontation between Open Space Trail Watch volunteers and horse advocates. The volunteers were installing a secondary fence to keep horses from reaching a water tank that had been placed on private land just over the primary fence.

The 560-acre open space is owned by the city of Albuquerque, which has fenced the perimeter. City volunteers have reported unknown persons cutting the fence allowing the horses to enter.

“The City intends to continue managing its Placitas Open Space for the benefit of all native plant and animal species, and to allow the land health to recover from the effects of drought and other undesirable impacts,” Matt Schmader, superintendent of the city of Albuquerque Open Space Division, wrote in response to emailed questions from the Signpost. “We encourage the Placitas community to work together as positively as possible to find mutually agreeable solutions to all of its differences.”

The confrontation ended peacefully.

Photo credit: Bill Diven
Land Management Specialist Ricardo Ortiz of San Felipe Pueblo explains the pueblo's proposed
plan for acquiring the Buffalo Tract—what is now a portion of BLM land in Placitas.

San Felipe Pueblo presents plan for BLM land

Signpost Staff

On August 23, Ricardo Ortiz, San Felipe’s Pueblo’s land-management specialist, presented his tribe’s proposal to take over an island of federal land near Placitas. The plan for a wildlife corridor that includes a horse sanctuary was first presented in 2012, along with the endorsement of the Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA).

Ortiz was introduced at the Las Placitas Presbyterian Church by Sandy Johnson of a newly formed free-roaming horse advocacy group called Placitas Wild ( Placitas Wild provided petitions supporting the plan. The audience consisted of about 75 people, many of whom were pro-roaming horse advocates.

San Felipe joins its neighbor Santa Ana Pueblo and the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant in offering competing visions of how best to use the 3,100 acres known as the Buffalo Tract. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property is currently part of a planning process that could open it to commercial development and gravel mining.

The 2013 New Mexico State Legislature approved funding under the federal Recreation and Public Purchases Act to purchase of the Buffalo Tract. The bill was vetoed by Governor Martinez. The plan included a horse sanctuary, but called for a limited number of horses. WHOA lobbied against it, and the plan received no support from any of the Placitas advocacy groups.

Ortiz said,“The land is culturally important to us. Abandoned horses, many near death, have been dumped on tribal land, and the survivors nursed back to health are now roaming there. The problem is not the horses, but people.”

Ortiz also announced that the tribal council, citing water consumption and air pollution, has decided to end its leases with Bar J Sand and Gravel, ending gypsum mining this year and gravel mining in 2015. While the council has approved the concept of preserving the Buffalo Tract, it still has to put the details into a formal resolution, he said.

Estimates in circulation place the value of the gravel and other minerals within the section of the Buffalo Tract already identified for mining at up to $1 billion.

Both San Felipe and Santa Ana claim the Buffalo Tract as ancestral lands and have included it in a proposed wildlife corridor linking the Sandia, Jemez, and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They and the Placitas-based land grant have said they would not allow gravel mining.

Like other private and public land the San Felipe tribe has acquired in recent years, covenants would prohibit development or mining, Ortiz said. The public would have access to the sanctuary and along with a museum the pueblo might locate nearby would help generate tourism in the county, he added.

While both pueblos would need an Act of Congress to acquire the Buffalo Tract as tribal trust lands, San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant is proposing to buy about half the parcel at low cost under the federal Recreation and Public Purchases Act. That option is open only to state and local governments, and the land grant is considered a unit of state government.

During the question-and-answer session another touchy topic came up: a long-dreaded road running through the Buffalo Tract to connect Interstates 25 and 40 by way of State Route 14. Opponents said they fear it would become a busy multi-lane highway sending some traffic onto Placitas roads and opening new areas to sprawl-like development. No such road is currently being planned.

“A highway would defeat the purpose of everything we are trying to do,” Ortiz said.

The BLM has said it expects to release an updated Resource Management Plan in December or January that will identify lands withheld for protection or opened up for development or other uses through sale, lease or trade. The RMP covers the entire BLM Rio Puerco Field Office stretching from the Arizona border to the Estancia Valley east of the Sandia Mountains. Officials have said the BLM will not accept any formal land proposals until after the RMP is released.

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