Pour Me a River

Albuquerque drinks from the Rio Grande

 

State Axes Cap-and-Trade

After more than a year of death-defying escapes, an environmental rule is repealed by a Gov. Susana Martinez-appointed board

Wolf vs. State

Guv-appointed commission yanks New Mexico's support for wolf reintroduction

 

All the Wild Horses

The preservation of Spanish mustangs in New Mexico

 

Do the Math

Albuquerque’s uninsured draw national attention

 

Covering Our Tracks

A lawsuit asks how much radioactive waste should legally be allowed to remain over Albuquerque's aquifer

 


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Pour Me a River

Albuquerque drinks from the Rio Grande

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, December 25, 2008

Two roiling basins of water press against each other, divided by a two-story-high concrete wall. One side is a gurgling brown mess of chemical dust—it looks like mud soup. But the other side glistens, clear as glass, tempting a dip of the hand.

The water is connected. The brown goo looks the way it does due to ferric (iron) chloride, which is mixed with the water to act as a kinetic coagulant, smashing into and grabbing hold of stray non-H20 particles. The water then filters at the bottom of the wall through a “weir” (a dam-like structure used to divert flow) and emerges in the other basin, seemingly pristine. This water will find its way to your glass, but as of now, it’s only completed part of the journey.

Even though neither basin signifies the first or last step in the process that is securing Albuquerque’s water supply, together they serve as a lovely visual metaphor: the sediment and cloudy mass of river water on one side, the purity of drinking water on the other.

After both adamant support and vocal dissent [See: Feature, “Parched?” May 31-June 6, 2007, and Newscity,“Down River,” Sept. 18-24, 2008], the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project has come online. And from now on, at least some of the water dripping out of your faucet comes from the Rio Grande.

Flow, Baby, Flow

It all begins on the river.

John Stomp looks positively gleeful. After 11 years of shepherding the Drinking Water Project through the minefields of hundreds of permits, dozens of meetings and a court appeal, his baby is about to come to life. His gestures are sweeping as he signals upstream, turns and points to a dam, which has more than 20 moveable gates and remains partially open to allow river flow. If water levels in the river become too low, the gates will be lowered completely.

Here, just south of the Alameda Bridge, millions of gallons of river water are diverted to a pump station a couple hundred yards away. Fish swept in the current are stopped by screens with holes small enough to block minnow eggs then led back to the river by a passage channel.

The morning is hazy and crisp. The trees on the banks of the Bosque stand sepia-toned. Stomp shudders momentarily in his white, button-down shirt as he explains how water is diverted. There are two intake structures, each with fish screens and a giant windshield wiper to clean those screens. An intake structure can hold 90 million gallons at a time, and so if one needs to shut down for maintenance, the other deploys. “We’re engineers, man. We like redundancy,” Stomp laughs.

Some people are concerned about taking such a large amount of water from the river. Steve Harris is a co-founder of Rio Grande Restoration, as well as the original organizer for a group that filed an appeal against the Drinking Water Project in 2001 (a ruling still hasn’t been issued by the Court of Appeals).

Harris and his cohorts argue that removing so much water from the river could have ecological consequences for river life. They also say New Mexico may no longer be able to meet its requirements of the Rio Grande Compact, which orders that the state pass a certain amount of water into Texas.

Stomp argues the state is in no such risk since the water taken out of the river isn’t native; it’s actually Colorado water. In the early '70s, Albuquerque started diverting water from the San Juan River across the Colorado border and into the Rio Chama (making it San Juan-Chama water), which is then channeled into the Rio Grande.

The water travels about 200 miles from Colorado before it reaches the city. Albuquerque gets as much as 48,200 acre-feet of that water a year (about 15.7 billion gallons).

Under the Drinking Water Project permit, the city is allowed to use as much San Juan-Chama water as it wants as long as the river level doesn’t get too low, but it can’t consume a drop of the Rio Grande. Of course, this is all calculated by volume, since there’s no way to differentiate between two molecules of water once they meet. (“There’s no red water and blue water,” says Stomp.)

And so some Rio Grande water is taken from the river at the same time as San Juan-Chama water to create a cushion—but at the end of the line, the same amount of Rio Grande water that was taken out must be put back.

Because all the water comes from Colorado, Stomp says the project will in no way interfere with New Mexico meeting the requirements of the compact. Still, Harris says the state was in noncompliance with the compact for decades before it started diverting water into the Rio Grande. Additionally, the river has evolved to become dependent on the extra water, he says, and there’s no telling what will happen when it’s removed.

Thirty-Five Years and Sinking

Albuquerque used to think its water supply was infinite, a miraculous oasis the size of Lake Superior buried in the desert. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that the city discovered it wasn’t sitting on a lake—it was hovering over a fractured network of vessels with only half as much water as previously thought. And that network is shrinking.

If nothing changes in Albuquerque’s water consumption, it’s estimated that in 25 years, the city will experience severe water quality issues; in 35 years, pockets of land in the city could start to sink. The $385 million Drinking Water Project is supposed to be the answer to that conundrum—or at least a preliminary one.

Through the project, residents will still drink aquifer water, but they’ll also drink river water. Stomp says in the first year, 25 percent of the city’s water will come from the river. That amount will gradually increase to meet about half the city’s demand in a couple years. He estimates that after having the project in place after 40 years, the aquifer’s levels will rise by 25 feet. Drinking river water is the city’s attempt to save the aquifer.

Pump It Up

The raw water pump station is inconspicuous—at least, as far as 15,000 square-foot industrial buildings go. After looking at several designs, neighbors settled on an old Spanish-style church façade, empty tower and all. The only exterior signs that the building is not, in fact, a house of worship are scattered lightning rods along the roof that resemble spent dandelions.

Behind soundproof walls are a dozen mint-green 1,000-horsepower pumps that send river water on its way to the water treatment plant. The building, as are most of the auxiliary Drinking Water Project facilities, is controlled remotely so the city doesn’t have to hire additional workers.

The water treatment plant sits on 90 acres a short distance from I-25 and Montgomery, although Stomp says the city bought 160 acres so it could be expanded eventually without bothering neighbors.

The veneer of the facility was designed to mimic the Sandias in shape and palette and is painted in colors that bring to mind fruits besides watermelon: raspberry, mango, cantaloupe. A shallow moat surrounds the entrance. It will be filled with water, made into a small-scale Rio Grande and used as an educational tool.

As river water is pushed through the plant, it is treated with ferric chloride and other chemicals, cleaned by carbon filtration and hit with ozone twice to strip it of any pollutants. Gravity does the rest, sending it across the city to combine with aquifer water, where it is then pumped into faucets.

Stomp says the treatment process is as good as any in the country and testing occurs frequently to guarantee the water is safe to drink. But concerns have also arisen from groups who are worried about contaminants in the river.

Aqua es Vida Action Team has had discussions with the Water Utility Authority on water quality for two years. It’s asked for a higher level of monitoring on the river, citing that pollutants like pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, perchlorate (an ingredient used in rocket fuel found to disrupt thyroid function), radionuclides and Bisphenol A (an endocrine disruptor) were found in the Rio Grande. The EPA sets standards for about 90 of these contaminants in all potable water, including tap and bottled drinking water.

Stomp says the river is in some ways cleaner than the aquifer—it has less arsenic, less salt and less radioactive particles, for instance—and he says the treatment process should remove any troublesome contaminants that might be found. Aqua es Vida has asked that river water be tested at the parts-per-trillion level (parts-per-billion is the metric used now), but Stomp says he’s not sure such technology exists.

“Now that the project’s up and running, we’re conducting an experiment to see what results we have,” says Rio Grande Restoration’s Harris. “It’s an experiment on the landscape.” Harris says whatever the effect on that landscape, it won’t be seen for several years. He argues that the city doesn’t have a backup plan if the Drinking Water Project causes problems.

Stomp spells it out. “We have a depleting aquifer,” he says, and if nothing is done, not just the city, but the region, is in jeopardy. “We’ll have to go to the river at some point anyway. It’s better to do it now than wait until there’s a public health crisis.” He adds that he thinks the project will protect the aquifer. “It’s a huge environmental issue that needs to be solved.”

No one knows if the project will fix the city’s water problems, but Stomp hopes it will. On Friday, Dec. 5, around 3 p.m., the switch was flipped.


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State Axes Cap-and-Trade

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, February 16, 2012

After more than a year of death-defying escapes, an environmental rule was repealed on Monday, Feb. 6, with a unanimous vote by a Gov. Susana Martinez-appointed board.

The rule up for debate was on capping and trading carbon dioxide emissions—putting a cap on how much can be produced and allowing companies that come in under the limit to trade what remains of their allowance.

The regulation was approved by the Environmental Improvement Board in 2010 during the final months of Democrat Gov. Bill Richardson's administration. But it was never implemented. Martinez fired all seven of those 2010 members and replaced them. The overhauled board axed cap-and-trade.

The rule was one of many pieces of environmental legislation Republican Gov. Martinez tried to halt when she took office [“Guv Sued Over Eco Rules,” Jan. 20-26, 2011]. The rule survived that round only to be challenged by utility companies in the state [“Utilities Protest Carbon Caps,” April 28-May 4, 2011].

This cap-and-trade system is the core component of the Western Climate Initiative. The more jurisdictions that sign up for the system, the bigger the trading marketplace is and the better it works.

Environmental Improvement Board member Elizabeth Ryan says the decision was based on the belief that the cost would outweigh the benefit. Because many states that were part of the Western Climate Initiative pulled out, she says, there’s not an adequate marketplace for trading.

Arizona, Utah, Montana, Oregon and Washington have also withdrawn, leaving California and four Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec). “The whole point for New Mexico is that we were likely going to need to purchase allowances from somewhere,” she says. “Who were we going to purchase them from?”

Ryan argues that since no neighboring states have emission caps, local utilities could simply hit New Mexico’s limit and then draw more energy from the plants they have across borders.

Bruce Frederick is a staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which fought for the rule. He says that isn’t a sound argument. When it comes to trading, “California was the only participant that mattered. California is the ninth-largest economy in the world,” he says. “The bottom line is that as long as California’s participating, the Western Climate Initiative works.”

PNM spokesperson Don Brown says the plan would have cost customers up to $841 million over the first 20 years. No technology exists yet to reduce carbon emissions in power plants, he says—at least not on a large scale. The only way to meet the cap-and-trade requirements would have been to run coal-fired plants less often and natural gas plants more, which are more expensive.

The Environmental Law Center’s Frederick says the group is considering filing an appeal against the board’s decision. He says the choice to repeal the rule is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, wherein a resource that belongs to everyone and therefore no one, like air, is ruined by lack of accountability. “We never said that New Mexico was going to cure climate change,” he says. “No one jurisdiction can solve the problem. We can demonstrate some leadership, though.”


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Wolf vs. State

Guv-appointed commission yanks New Mexico's support for wolf reintroduction

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, June 30, 2011

The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program has a simple premise: reintegrate an endangered species into its natural habitat. In practice, however, bringing the wolf back to the Southwest has proven to be anything but easy, with environmental groups and ranchers maintaining a heated debate during the 13 years the program’s been in existence.

The state’s Game Commission voted unanimously on June 9 to withdraw from the reintroduction effort. Gov. Susana Martinez appointed four new members to the six-member board in March. Bill Montoya is one of those new members. “It was costing us a lot of money,” says Montoya, who worked for the Game and Fish Department for 28 years. “We didn’t think we were going in the right direction.”

The reintroduction is handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which placed wolves in the state in 1998. A year later, the state joined the program, and since then, New Mexico has contributed to the cause financially. Dan Williams, spokesperson for the Game and Fish Department, says the state has spent about $570,000 on the Mexican gray wolf since the program’s inception, and the federal government matched those funds. The portion from the state was generated by hunting and fishing fees, not taxpayer dollars.

Two state employees from Game and Fish worked on the program, and Williams says the department is evaluating where those employees will go now.

The state’s withdrawal may not have much of a direct impact on the reintroduction since its role in the effort has been minimal, but both sides of the debate wonder if it serves as a bellwether for further changes by the new administration. Former Gov. Bill Richardson outlawed the trapping of wolves in 2007. Environmental groups worry Martinez will overturn this rule, and ranchers hope she will.

Laura Schneberger is the president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association. Her cattle ranch has been in her family since 1964, though it’s more than a century old. She lost three calves to wolves in the spring, she says, and in 2003 she lost six. Schneberger’s main contention with the program is that she’s not allowed to treat wolves the same way she treats other large predators in the area. “The wolves don’t bother people nearly as much as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s and the environmentalists’ handling of it,” she says. She adds that she wouldn’t mind the wolves as much “if I could shoot the ones that cause problems.”

When black bears or mountain lions kill a calf, ranchers are allowed to shoot them, she says. But because the wolves are endangered, there’s not much ranchers can do to stop them.

Ranchers are supposed to be financially reimbursed for the cattle they lose due to wolves, but proving a wolf is responsible for a kill can be tricky. Schneberger says she’s only been reimbursed for two out of the nine calves she’s lost. But it’s not just about money. She says when wolves are staking out a ranch, “sometimes you lose a cow and calf pair a day. It’s very stressful. ... There’s an emotional response to what you see, what gore is inflicted on you and your kids.”

With Mexican gray wolves on the endangered species list, though, it’s easy to make the case for conservation. The Fish and Wildlife Service was only able to find 50 of them in New Mexico and Arizona in January, and those account for the only Mexican gray wolves not in captivity.

Other wolf reintroduction programs have fared better. The Fish and Wildlife Service counted 1,650 gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain region last year, says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Robinson says the reason the Mexican gray wolf is on the verge of extinction is due, not surprisingly, to humans. The federal government tried to wipe out wolves in the early 20th century and widely accomplished its goal with poison. “We’ve gotten to a point where people in our society understand the value of other creatures and want to coexist,” says Robinson. “We shouldn’t allow this unique creature to disappear from the earth.”

Wolves also play a crucial role in local ecosystems, he adds. In Yellowstone, where the wolf recovery has been largely successful, other environmental factors have reaped rewards. Take cottonwood trees, for example. Before wolves were brought back, the elk population was so high that most cottonwood saplings were eaten before they made it to adulthood. “In the last 16 years since wolf reintroduction, trees have been allowed to mature and are now providing habitats for songbirds and logs for beavers, which provides habitat for fish,” he says. “The whole riparian ecosystem’s improved by the presence of wolves.”

For now, the Mexican gray wolf program will continue unchanged, even without the state’s participation. Robinson worries, however, that wolves will begin to kill more cattle without some action taken by the state. In the past, Game and Fish employees fed some wolves when they approached ranches in order to curb their appetites.

There’s no way to appeal the commission’s decision, and so Robinson and his group are focused on trying to improve the recovery effort. Meanwhile, Schneberger hopes the program will simply go away.


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All the Wild Horses

The preservation of Spanish mustangs in New Mexico

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, January 14, 2010

Carlos LoPopolo is large in stature—and in ambition. His frame seems to dwarf the wooden bench he’s perched on at the Satellite Coffee on University. His height is hard to gauge from a sitting position, but he looms over the table, a studded black cowboy hat bobbing as he talks, which is most of the time. To his right, Paul Polechla serves as his counterpart—a man of average size and quiet disposition, wearing a white cowboy hat and yellow-and-blue checkered shirt, topped with a matching silk bandana tied around his neck. LoPopolo is a Southwest historian and the founder of the New Mexican Horse Project, an organization many New Mexicans know nothing about. Polechla is the group’s biologist as well as a biology professor at UNM.

Though the Horse Project’s mission to preserve a certain kind of horse is simple, LoPopolo and Polechla will tell you the road they’ve been down has been anything but. In the 10 years the organization has existed, LoPopolo has met criticism and fury from horse breeders and cattle ranchers, spent nearly $1 million out of his own pocket, and has even been graced with the occasional death threat. The reason he puts up with it? It’s all to protect a horse most people thought no longer existed.

Horses were native to North America and roamed the American plains for 58 million years, says Polechla, but then went extinct in the region and were absent for about 8,000 years. In the Spanish Colonial period, a little more than 400 years ago, mustangs were reintroduced through New Mexico, Polechla says, and all the wild horses in North America today are descended from that reintroduction. Until about a decade ago, the men add, it was common opinion that the reintroduced Spanish mustang had disappeared.

In 1999, LoPopolo was approached by local photographer Charles Perry, who had pictures of wild horses a local rancher said were old Spanish mustangs. “I didn’t really believe it,” says LoPopolo, “I thought they had been outbred.” But LoPopolo decided to look into it. He did a roundup of the horses Perry captured on film and took their DNA samples. He sent the samples from all 40 horses to Dr. Gus Cothran, one of the world’s foremost equine geneticists, who was stationed at the University of Kentucky. Thirty-eight of the horses, Cothran told LoPopolo, were common, but two had DNA he’d never before seen.

That evidence, combined with “subjective reasoning,” says LoPopolo, convinced him that the horses were the old Spanish mustangs—no longer “pure,” but closer than he’d thought possible.

After this discovery, LoPopolo sat down with his wife Cindy, now deceased, to talk about what they should do. “We had always been around horses all our lives,” he says. They raised Arabians together, and he, in a previous incarnation, had been a rodeo cowboy (then a race car driver, then a business owner, then an artist whose work now hangs in the Vatican—but that’s a story for another day). “We had a six- or seven-hour discussion about what to do,” he says, “and we made a decision.” With the help of some friends, they started the New Mexican Horse Project, which aims to preserve the wild Spanish mustangs they find and ensure their freedom.

The Horse Project operates on two preserves, one on 28,000 acres (lent by Campbell Corporation, where LoPopolo was working at the time the mustang organization started), and the other on 5,000 acres near Socorro. Through DNA testing, the Horse organization has found more than 30 of the Spanish mustangs. The project doesn’t feed the horses because the horses know how to fend for themselves, and that keeps them wild, LoPopolo says. Plus, Polechla interjects, there are plenty of highly nutritious grasses scattered throughout the preserves, and he can talk in detail about every one of them—“I know my grasses.”

The Socorro preserve, named the Cindy Roger LoPopolo Wild Horse Preserve, has double functions. It also serves as a retreat for those who are suffering from cancer. While no one is allowed to approach the horses on the preserve, sometimes the horses will approach people, and LoPopolo says those interactions can be breathtaking.

The decision to establish the preserve specifically for cancer patients came early, more than a year before it was bought in 2004. LoPopolo and his wife had seen the effect working with horses had on colleagues who had cancer. It helped them relax, they said, helped them feel “normal.” Six months after LoPopolo and his wife decided to dedicate the Socorro preserve to cancer patients, she was diagnosed with melanoma, and nine months after that, she was gone.

LoPopolo says he made a promise to continue on the Horse Project’s mission, and that’s what he’s doing. But eventually he’ll pass the task onto someone else, once it becomes more financially sustainable. As it stands, the organization doesn’t make much money. “We’re lucky if we get $3,000 a year in donations,” says LoPopolo, “but it takes $100,000 to run.”

Money for the project is generated through two stores in Socorro—an art gallery called Wild Horses of the West and Socorro Leather. The stores have no employees—instead, members (mainly LoPopolo) volunteer to watch over them, and all profits go to the project. LoPopolo also finds funding in writing books. He’s authored 27 to date, most on the history of New Mexico during the Spanish period. Now he’s writing a children’s book,Zobo the First Mustang, the first in a series of 10 about the history of horses in the Southwest.

The Horse Project has also gotten some grant money—about $100,000 from the state in past years and $75,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009. Polechla, who requested the money from NSF, says the funding is a Planning Grant. This enables the Horse Project to craft a proposal that will land the organization a larger grant, “in the low seven figures,” says Polechla, to build a large-scale science education package. He says the goal is to produce a PBS documentary series, interactive website, coffee table book, traveling museum exhibition and teachers’ guide. Previously, a documentary on the project’s findings was released by National Geographic in 2001, called “America’s Lost Mustang.”

All the work the men are doing is for a single purpose—keeping the lineage from dying out. Wild horses in general aren’t well-protected by the government, and the proof is in the numbers. In 1971, LoPopolo says, there were an estimated 1 to 1.5 million wild horses in North America. Today, there are only 22,000 to 32,000. “We should have wild horses in every federal park in the U.S.,” he says, but instead, many people in the States are surprised to learn that wild horses still exist at all. But if LoPopolo and Polechla have anything to do with it, that won’t be the case forever.

 


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Do the Math

Albuquerque’s uninsured draw national attention

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, April 27, 2006

Vivian Hairston has four children, one husband, one small business and four employees. In New Mexico, that’s more than a palindrome—it’s an equation that, oftentimes, leads to zero health insurance.

With nearly 400,000 New Mexicans currently without health care coverage, what started as bad math has become an epidemic—not just in the state, but everywhere. Affecting not only low-wage earners but also many middle-class workers, children and small businesses, and taking its toll through bankruptcies, unseemly medical bills and burdens on the health care system, America’s lack of insurance is quickly becoming everyone’s problem.

Now seems to be the perfect time to dwell on it—because from May 1-7, all around the country, organizers are converging for Cover the Uninsured Week, a four-year-old project aimed at awareness and outreach. According to Robin Hunn, field organizer with Cover the Uninsured Week in Albuquerque, as a result of events for the week last year, more than 1,000 kids in Albuquerque were signed onto Medicaid. This year, with events ranging from lectures to enrollment fairs to small business seminars, organizers are aiming at 2,000.

Still, Hunn says such progress is only a dent in the problem. She says there are approximately 60,000 children statewide who would qualify for Medicaid who aren’t signed up, with estimates of up to 25,000 of them in Albuquerque alone. Now that’s what we call irrational numbers.

Welcome to the Land of the Uninsured

Hairston’s dilemma is similar to many New Mexicans’. For years, she and her husband struggled to find coverage not only for their family but for the employees of their 16-year-old landscaping business as well. Yet she says because the system has become so expensive, they were never able to find plans they could afford.

“I hadn’t gotten new glasses [for a long time],” she says, “I hadn’t been to the dentist in three to four years. I don’t like the Medicaid system—it’s degrading, for one thing. I always felt we should be able to afford insurance because of our higher income, but we couldn’t. And then we didn’t qualify [for Medicaid]. We were applying for it every six months. But we really didn’t understand how the whole thing worked, so we just gave up. … I figured I would rather just pay for the doctor, and pray we don’t get sick enough to have to go to the hospital.”

Now, Hairston is one of the lucky ones. Even though she was never able to afford health insurance for her entire family through her own business, a few months ago she was able to sign on to an insurance plan through a part-time job with Avon. The plan covers her and her two youngest children (the two oldest are under her ex-husband’s plan and her current husband is under a separate plan), and it offers her a rate she can afford. Yet Hairston’s insurance problems are anything but solved, as she and her husband are still unable to offer health insurance to their employees.

Martha Doster knows the feeling. The owner of Martha’s Body Bueno, a local small business that has been operating for 30 years, she says she’s never been able to offer coverage to her employees. “Over the years, I’ve offered them health insurance, but they couldn’t afford it,” she says. “Other times, I couldn’t even think about offering it; I couldn’t even afford it for myself.” Currently, Doster does have insurance and wants to offer it to her four employees, but none can manage the monthly premiums.

Basic Arithmetic

Number of children in the state on Medicaid as of November 2005: 257,524

Number of bankruptcies nationally in 2001: 1,458,000

Number of bankruptcies nationally in 2001 caused by illness and medical bills: 729,000

Number of uninsured children in New Mexico as of 2004: 76,900

Percent of uninsured in New Mexico who are working: 84

Number of uninsured nationally: 46 million

Percent of uninsured that are children: 20

Rate at which health care spending in the country has increased since the ’60s: 10 percent a year

Percent in which premiums for family coverage have increased since 2000: 73

Percent of earnings growth since 2000: 16

New Mexico has the second-largest number of uninsured in the nation

Sources: Health Affairs, statehealthfacts.org, Cover the Uninsured Week

 

She says one of the reasons it’s been so difficult to provide insurance for her employees in the past is because in order to sign onto group insurance, a minimum of three people need to be enrolled at all times. In the world of mom and pop businesses, she says, there usually aren’t many more than that number of employees, and there are often high turnover rates, making for an unstable situation when it comes to health coverage.

Indeed, the predicament is grim for small businesses, which make up a large part of New Mexico’s economy. “I’m worried about being able to continue to afford [insurance], everything else is going up too,” she says. “Being self-employed means the greatest number of taxes are taken [from you]—small business is taxed to death. But really, small business is who brings in the most sales tax, hires the most people and pays the most taxes. A lot of the country’s backbone is built on small business, yet they’re taken advantage of; it’s a shame.”

Doster, who has been invited to go to Washington, D.C. at the end of the month to talk about health insurance issues with Congress, also worries about the future of health care for the country. After a car accident in 1994, she was laid up for close to a year. “Had my business not been well-established, it would have failed,” she says. “ I had insurance at the time. But that’s all it takes—one accident that hurts you and you’re paying for it for the rest of your life because you don’t have insurance.

“I have no idea what the answer is. Do we want to pay more in our tax base for coverage? I don’t know; I just know something has to happen. This whole country is spiraling—more, bigger, better, now, who cares about the future?—this is one more facet. There is a schism here of the working poor and the wealthy—and nothing in between.”

More Than One Emergency

The lack of insurance in the state and the country effects more than families and small businesses—it puts a huge burden on the hospital system. According to Jeff Dye, president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospitals & Health Systems Association, the biggest impact is on hospital emergency rooms as they absorb the cost of treating uninsured patients.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” he says. “Hospitals have a cost of providing services to the uninsured. When they take care of them, the cost is transferred to insurance carriers who then raise premiums, which affects employers. Then, employers tend to not offer insurance or employees can’t afford to take insurance with a higher premium—it goes in a circle. The problem is getting worse; proportionately, it’s getting worse nationwide.”

Dye says another problem in the system is that many of the uninsured who are treated in emergency rooms are sicker than they should be because they don’t have regular access to primary care. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s wasteful to the health care system when [those patients] could be seen at a lower level,” he says. “It’s a burden on busy ERs and trauma centers.”

He adds that the reason the underlying cost of health care and insurance continues to grow is mainly due to new advances in technology, as well as the mounting cost of hospital staffing. “Demand is increasing because of an aging population,” he says. “The Baby Boomers are a definite factor. There’s the aging of the population and the aging of health care professionals.”

Dye says there are currently workforce shortage problems in the industry, but not for lack of eager students who want to enter the field. “In our state,” he says, “there’s a pretty good supply of folks who want to become nurses. Now, people are applying for nursing schools and being turned down because there’s not the capacity to educate them. People at the front end of the pipeline are applying to schools, but the pipeline isn’t big enough to meet demand.”

Dye’s solution to the problem is simple: “We should do everything we can to maximize and expand the Medicaid program to cover as many folks as we can.”

Looking for Answers

Betina McCracken, communications director for the state’s Human Services Department, says more coverage is exactly what the state is aiming for.

In the last two legislative sessions, she says, a number of bills have passed that are working to help lower the number of uninsured in the state. The goals of legislation ran from public outreach to small business and the working poor to inform them on available programs, to requiring insurers to offer coverage to part-time employees, to raising the age in which unmarried dependents can stay on their parents’ insurance to 25. Also, as part of Gov. Bill Richardson’s “Year of the Child” legislation in this year’s session, a bill was passed that allows the state to provide assistance on insurance premiums for uninsured children and pregnant women who aren’t eligible for Medicaid.

According to McCracken, the state saw a small improvement in the rate of uninsured between 2003, when the rate was 21.1 percent, to 2004, when it dropped slightly to 21 percent.

“It’s a process,” says McCracken. “[The state] recognizes the problem won’t be solved overnight—we have to chip away at it through programs. There needs to be a public and private partnership to solve it.”

One of the programs that has the potential to make a big difference in the state is the New Mexico State Coverage Insurance (SCI) program. Established in July 2005 after passing in that year’s Legislative Session, the program offers low premiums to workers and small businesses in the state. Employers who wish to offer their employees health care can pay $75 per month per employee, while employees pay $0 to $35 per month, based on their income. If someone doesn’t have an employer who offers the program, they can sign up independently and pay both the “employer’s share” plus their premium every month. The program is only available to those who make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level and haven’t voluntarily dropped a commercial insurance plan over the last six months. For employers to offer it, they can’t have dropped a commercial insurance plan over the last 12 months.

So far, McCracken says, 4,350 people are signed up under the program, 39 of which are signed up through a business. With this year’s and next year’s funding, the program can cover up to 20,000 people. To try to get word out on the program, a state-run campaign kicked off on Monday which will feature billboards and print ads advertising the program; radio ads are already in effect.

McCracken says the state is continuing to look at other ways to lower the number of uninsured. If you’re uninsured, call the state Health Insurance Alliance at (800) 204-4700 to find out about programs you may be eligible for.


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Covering Our Tracks

A lawsuit asks how much radioactive waste should legally be allowed to remain over Albuquerque's aquifer

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, October 20, 2005

Out over the East Mesa, sitting 460 feet above the city's sole groundwater supply, five miles southeast of the Albuquerque International Sunport and just a mile east of Mesa del Sol, a large-scale residential development that will soon be popping up over the horizon, lies a piece of land with a troubling history.

Sandia National Laboratories' Mixed Waste Landfill, a repository for varying degrees of radioactive and hazardous waste, has caused quite a stir over the years. Established during the Cold War in 1959 and closed in 1988, it serves as a graveyard for nuclear weapons research materials. With more than 40 types of radioactive elements buried beneath a mere 15-25 feet of dirt, there has been a great controversy within the last few years over what to do with the site.

Some parties have argued that the waste should be excavated and shipped to places more equipped to handle it; thereby eliminating any risk that it might bring to the city's water supply, citizens or ecosystem. Others worry that excavating the site could do more harm than good, by stirring up highly dangerous materials that have been sedentary for 17 years and potentially exposing them to people and the environment.

Now, it seems, the debate is drawing to a climax. In the wake of a recent ruling from New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary Ron Curry, approving a plan by Sandia to leave the waste and cap the site, a lawsuit has been filed against the state, claiming that such a decision is illegal. The outcome of the lawsuit could have far-reaching implications, helping to decide the level of responsibility that should preside over the site for generations to come.

What Lies Beneath

The Mixed Waste Landfill is one of Sandia's more than 100 waste sites; spanning over 2.6 acres, it includes an estimated 73 cubic yards of transuranic waste (which is about 200-250 55-gallon drums worth), including plutonium, tritium and cobalt-60. Not all of the contents of the site are known.

Technically, the landfill isn't a landfill at all, as it wasn't engineered to serve as one. Instead, the site is a series of unlined trenches and cylindrical holes between 15 and 25 feet deep, covering both classified and unclassified material.

The site sits directly over Albuquerque's aquifer, but to date has not leached any contaminates into the water. Ten years ago, tritium, a radioactive element that binds with water, was found to have traveled more than 100 feet into the earth, but was still considerably out of reach from the water table, which rests at approximately 460 feet below the surface.

Based off a “corrective measures” study completed in 2003, which studied the risks, cost and effectiveness of different methods to deal with the site, Sandia has come up with a plan to “cap” the landfill, allowing the waste to remain for the unforeseen future. Approved by NMED's Curry this spring, the plan entails covering the site with an additional three feet of dirt and implementing landscaping. NMED also requested that a bio-intrusion barrier (consisting of a one foot-thick layer of crushed, jagged rock) be put in place below the extra layer of dirt to help ward off burrowing animals.

Dick Fate, environmental restoration manager for project closure with Sandia, said the site will also remain closely monitored, and will be re-evaluated every five years to see if there are any signs that it should be excavated.

The cost of the project is estimated at more than $2.8 million, paid for at the federal level. If the site were to be excavated, Sandia estimates the cost would vary between $416 and $702 million. Continuing yearly maintenance of the site is estimated at $120,000.

Filing Suit

Citizen Action New Mexico, a local government watchdog group spawned from ex-members of Sandia's Citizen Advisory Board, has filed a lawsuit against NMED to appeal Curry's decision to approve Sandia's plan for the site.

Susan Dayton, director of Citizen Action, said the basis for the lawsuit is that federal law requires that transuranic waste be treated in a certain manner; specifically, it should be isolated in a location where it won't serve as a risk to humans for 10,000 years. She cites the Code of Federal Regulations, which states (in 40CFR191.13(a)):

“Disposal systems for spent nuclear fuel or high-level or transuranic radioactive waste shall be designed to provide a reasonable expectation, based upon performance assessments, that the cumulative releases of radionuclides to the accessible environment for 10,000 years after disposal from all significant processes and events ...”

Dayton said only deep geologic repositories, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which is located more than 2,000 feet below ground, are acceptable for storing such high levels of radioactive waste, and certainly not shallow burials like the Mixed Waste Landfill, which is unequipped to handle such high-level waste in the long-term.

Adam Rankin, spokesperson for NMED, said Curry's decision was based on findings provided by Sandia that “there is no evidence or support for the contention that human health or the environment is endangered by the Mixed Waste Landfill. According to all reviews, air and water are protected and there is no indication these are in jeopardy.” Rankin also said that there is no requirement in the state's Hazardous Waste Act that transuranic waste be excavated.

Rankin added that NMED is requiring extensive monitoring of the site, and that if at any point it is shown that air and/or water are threatened, they will “take action to require mitigation.”

Dr. Eric Nuttall, one of several authors of a 2001 scientific peer review of the site and a professor in the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering at the University of New Mexico, said he thinks NMED's decision seems prudent, at least for the time being. “I would concede that maybe that's the correct position at this point in time, but ultimately it should be excavated. Sandia says there is a very low risk of it hurting anyone; but this is not a passive set of materials. In fact, Sandia is saying they're so unsafe, we can't even dig them up.”

Still, Sandia's Fate said that, based on closely monitoring the site for at least 15 years and doing periodic testing of soil and water, the landfill shows a minimum risk of posing any threat to the city or environment. Fate believed there was so little risk, in fact, that he referred to the capping of the Mixed Waste Landfill as “an elegant solution.”

“We've been blessed. When they decided to create the landfill in the '60s, they knew the site was 500 feet above groundwater, and they were careful not to put liquids there—they kept it dry and covered—there's a small probability it will go anywhere,” said Fate.

Sandia has had problems with other landfills leaching waste into the groundwater, due to liquids that were tossed into the site. In the case of the Chemical Waste Landfill, which Sandia finished excavating mere weeks ago, TCE, a cancer-causing chemical, was found in the groundwater and had to be vapor-extracted out. If radioactive waste got into the aquifer, however, the water could never be completely restored.

Dayton used this as an argument to excavate the Mixed Waste Landfill. “This is old technology, they've done it before and done it safely; they can do it again.”

But Fate said the site is different from other sites, in that the landfill is not active enough to outweigh the risk of excavating it. He added that there are also some materials in the site (like radium 226, beryllium and cobalt 60) that, if brought to the surface, would be unable to be moved to another site, due to both their cumbersomeness as well as restrictions placed on other waste sites in terms of what they can accept. The cobalt 60 buried in the site, for instance, is encapsulated in two trucks of concrete, along with lead and steel, said Fate. “It's too big to move.”

But Nuttall said he thinks Sandia could move all of the waste if they put their minds to it. “Cobalt 60 is currently used and disposed of at Sandia, there are homes for that. It may not be in neat, tidy bundles with bows on them, but to say it's not possible to dispose of is not correct.”

Currently, Citizen Action is waiting for a court hearing to be scheduled. In the meantime, Nuttall aptly sums up the situation. “There are legitimate concerns here; we are dealing with legacy waste. This is not the best of times, but it's also not the worst of times. We're closing out the end of an era.”