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Udder Distress

A small town takes on Big Dairy over foul odor and fly plague

Local NewsTuesday, October 21, 2014 by Joseph Sorrentino

“I tell people that I always know I’m in Mesquite because of the smell,” says Arturo Uribe, executive director of the Mesquite Community Action Committee. The odor, he and other Mesquite residents say, comes from the roughly 30,000 cows housed in Dairy Row, a stretch of about a dozen dairies paralleling I-10 southeast of Las Cruces.

That many cows in that small an area also produce huge numbers of flies, many of which, Uribe says, end up in Mesquite, making life in the tiny town of 1,100 more and more unbearable. Town residents are paying the price, they say, for New Mexico to have modern, industrial dairies and for the rest of us to have fresh milk in our refrigerators. Uribe and about 20 other residents are bringing a nuisance lawsuit against seven dairies in Dairy Row, seeking unspecified monetary damages. A small town is taking on Big Dairy.

Roberto Nava, whose long white hair and beard make him look more like a mountain man than the retired educator he is, has lived in Mesquite off and on his whole life. “I open my door [in the morning],” he says, “and if it smells like cow shit, I close it. If it doesn’t, I open it.”

Roberto Nava and Arturo Uribe are Mesquite residents suing Big Dairy.
Sorrentino

Marty Nieto, another lifelong resident, took a break one afternoon from yard work to talk about the lawsuit filed in October 2012 in Las Cruces District Court. Although he said the flies weren’t particularly bad that day, he swatted at them continually as he spoke. “Right now, you wouldn’t be able to have a cookout or just hang out outside because the flies are just so annoying,” he says. “No way we could enjoy ourselves out here. It’s horrendous.”

Dairy co-op and lobbying websites depict their operations with lovely photographs of black and white Holstein cows standing in lush, green pastures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, cows in almost all dairies are in CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—spending the majority of their days in large corrals, standing in mud and manure. An adult dairy cow produces 120 to 150 pounds of manure a day, so cows in Dairy Row are collectively dumping around 2,000 tons of it every 24 hours. Cows in the seven dairies being sued account for about half of that. Most manure is expelled in the corrals where it’s compacted by the cows, and eventually used as fertilizer on the dairy or local farms.

Uribe is a solidly built 34-year-old whose straightforward manner can, at first, come off as brusque. But it’s really an intensity that comes from fighting for his town. He’s spent most of his life in Mesquite and knows the town’s residents, and dairy owners, well. In fact, his sister is married to the son of a dairy owner. He knows that the dairies are an important part of the community, providing jobs in an area that’s starved for them. “It wasn’t an easy thing to all of a sudden sue them,” he says. “We’d speak with [dairy owners]…they did their best to be a good neighbor, but nothing changed.”

Four years ago, he was interviewed for an NPR story about New Mexico’s dairies and mentioned the problem with flies. That caught the attention of Richard Middleton, whose law firm specializes in agricultural nuisance lawsuits. Middleton and some of his staff came in from Savannah, Ga., and met with Uribe, Nava and other residents. Nava says, “They asked us, ‘Does it smell?’ Yes. ‘Is there an abundance of flies?’ Yes. ‘That’s all we need to know.’”

Flies land in droves on every surface in Mesquite.
Sorrentino

Not surprisingly, the dairy owners deny dairies are responsible for the flies and odors.

Pete Domenici Jr., a well-known Albuquerque attorney who has been involved with lawsuits about environmental issues and dairies for about 20 years, is defending the dairies.

“There has been very little effort by the plaintiffs to identify why they think the dairies are the source of flies or odors,” he tells SFR. “Prevailing wind direction is from west to east, all of the plaintiffs are to the west…an indication that the odors wouldn’t travel that far or that the dairies would be a source. They’re also quite a distance from the dairies in terms of patterns of fly behavior, and there are many other sources closer. Dairies don’t feel they’re responsible for flies or odors.”

Domenici didn’t answer a follow-up question about what the “other sources” might be.

Only one dairy farmer was willing to speak about the lawsuit and did so on the condition of anonymity; he’s not one of the farmers being sued.

“Flies gather in the pine trees that are around houses,” he says. “Many people have horses in their yards and don’t clean up after them.” There aren’t, however, any horse herds in Mesquite. He added that the lawsuit, if successful, would hurt dairies. “It’s been tough for everybody,” he says, “and the lawsuit could be the tipping point; dairies may have to leave.”

That’s something that Nava would welcome. In addition to the flies and odor, water pollution from tons of manure is also a concern, and the state has been moving slow on updating regulations to curb contamination.

“We thought initially…that [dairies] were going to relocate and that’s what we wanted,” he says. “We were kind of disappointed that they [might] just pay up and continue as usual.” If they did relocate, they’d take jobs with them, but Uribe thinks other industries would come in.

“We have more of an opportunity to bring in better paying jobs because of the freeway than having dairies here,” he says, noting railroad access and warehouses are already plentiful. Still, growth in other industries is uncertain and probably years away.

The opposing sides are scheduled to meet in mediation on Dec. 11. “If successful, it could avoid a trial,” says Middleton, the residents’ attorney, “But we can walk away if there’s not sufficient money offered.” He declined to offer a figure that he was looking for, but added, “I’ve learned over the years that you have to hit [dairies] in the pocketbook.” Middleton’s been doing this kind of work since 1999 and says he’s seen some dairies clean up their operations while others have folded or moved.

It’s clear that, whatever the outcome, Uribe’s not going anywhere. “I’m real proud I get to live in my grandparents’ house,” he says. “I feel my roots, my sense of place. [Mesquite was] established in 1882. The families have been here much longer than the dairies.” He realizes that the dairies may not be going anywhere either and that they’re also part of the community. After dinner in a small roadside restaurant in La Mesa, he got a little philosophical. “We have to figure out a way to live together,” he says. “After the lawsuit, the lawyers are all gonna leave and we’ll all still be here.” 


This article was reported in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Two Seek Congress Seat

Ben Ray Lujan and Jefferson Byrd face off for NM US Congress seat in our latest video interview with candidates

Local NewsMonday, October 20, 2014 by SFR

Congressional challenger Jefferson Byrd decided that the League of Women Voters forum wasn't his bag, walking out on a room full of potential voters last week.

But Byrd agreed to appear with us for the latest installment of Candidate Chat, where he and incumbent US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan explain their differing opinions on the role of the federal government and recent decisions on topics including war and climate change. Spoiler alert: They even agree once. 

Ballots are already being cast for the Nov. 4 general election, which features contests for governor, state representatives, state treasurer, auditor and more.  Hear from more candidates by visiting our Candidate Chat page




 

What Should the County Do With La Bajada Ranch?

County committee seeks input in 470-acre property

Local NewsMonday, October 20, 2014 by Justin Horwath

Should it be a park? A campground? A housing development? Members of La Bajada Steering Committee are seeking your input on what Santa Fe County should do with the 470-acre La Bajada Ranch, also formerly known as Santa Fe Canyon Ranch. 

For the past year, the county has been mulling what to do with the pristine property, located between the Santa Fe River and west of the La Cienega exit off I-25. 

Commissioners ponied up $7 million in taxpayer cash to purchase part of the property from Santa Fe Canyon Ranch LLC. 

La Bajada Steering Committee Chair Eric Blinam writes that the committee is setting aside time in its October 23 meeting "for the serious but fun business of brainstorming."

Potential uses for the property proposed to the committee have included a campground, a housing development, open space, a kite part and a demonstration campus for sustainable living research, writes Blinman. 

The meeting is October 23 at the Santa Fe County building at 102 Grant Ave. The committee will be considering other business starting at 4 pm, writes Blinman, but it doesn't expect the "idea portion" of the meeting to start unit after 5 pm, and they'll stick around until  6:30 pm or when "ideals run out." The committee will allow three-minute presentations of each idea, followed by up to five minutes of questions from the committee.

Producer Frank Mancuso purchased 850 adjacent acres of the ranch after the county green-lighted the rezoning of that portion of the property for a single homestead, preventing the development of an 18-home subdivision. 


Christus Nurses Vote for 40th Percentile, Enforcement

Union vote Saturday late into night on contract with management where both sides make concessions

Local NewsSunday, October 19, 2014 by Justin Horwath

Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center union members overwhelmingly voted to ratify a three-year contract with the hospital's management late Saturday night.


The vote was all but certain following a late-night agreement by top union delegates Wednesday night to recommend approval to its members of management's offer.


Christus St. Vincent CEO Bruce Tassin issued a memo Thursday to employees saying he "strongly" recommends the adoption of the contract by the District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, whose negotiating committee also urged members to adopt to agreement after they spent two months picketing outside the hospital for more robust staffing levels.


Tassin says in a statement released last night that management is "pleased" membership voted to ratify the contract.


"We will now focus on moving forward and, as always, continue working together to provide high-quality care to our patients and their families," he says.  "Our ultimate goal was always based on a win-win philosophy that would result in accountability from the Union with respect to patient satisfaction."


Part of the agreement ties 1.5 percent pay raises in 2015 and 2016 for nurses to patient satisfaction scores, which the hospital says have improved over the years with current staffing levels but which have been below average, leading to a $2 million cut in Medicare funding from the federal government.


In the agreement, the hospital "committed" to staffing targets no lower than the 40th percentile for nursing units and no lower than the 33rd percentile for tech units over the next three years, according to Tassin's memo to employees.


That means Christus St. Vincent's nursing units will be staffed below that of 60 percent of peer hospitals. For technical employee units, 67 percent of similarly sized hospitals will have more robust staffing.


Departing local 1199 President Fonda Osborn says that while the union didn't get everything it wanted, the staffing floor gives it a "foundation" to ensure better staffing levels. For instance, one the of the early demands of the union, she says, was that hospital management look at staffing on a shift-by-shift basis instead of in the aggregate. Tracking staffing levels in the aggregate, she says, led hospital management to leave "holes" in staffing schedules on units, like only scheduling 4 nurses on the medical-surgical unit when it called for seven nurses.


The 40th percentile is around the same target staffing number the union had been protesting for the past three years, but the union got a concession out of management by getting the hospital to self-monitor daily for compliance checks with staffing needs. The hospital "will pay up to $900 per day into a nurse and tech education fund if staffing is not on target," says Tassin's memo, "except for attendance issues and other exceptions" out of the hospital's control. 


The agreement comes after union picketed the hospital for over 60 days and more than a half year of protracted talks.


"So while it took seven months to reach an agreement," Tassin says in his statement, "it was because of our unwavering stance that the patient experience must always be our first priority. 

Still, union members indicate they'll push the staffing issue in other venues.

Osborn says staffing levels should not be an issue in contract negotiations and that she hopes the legislature will pass "safe staffing" legislation next year.


"We really had to move a mountain to get here," she says. "We’re the only nurses in the state that had that ability here because we fought for it."



Gun Pledge

Santa Fe Schools to recognize anti-gun day

Local NewsFriday, October 17, 2014 by Joey Peters

Schools in Santa Fe are gearing up to recognize a national observance day aimed at curbing guns in the classroom.

Next Wednesday, Oct. 22, is the Student Pledge Against Violence Day, which encourages school students to sign a pledge against bringing guns to school and using guns to resolve conflicts. The observance day comes after both the local school board and City Council approved resolutions supporting the pledge. 

The issue came close to home recently. Last week, city police put Ortiz Middle School on lockdown after a student bought a weapon later determined to be a starter gun to school. SWAT team members and state police also showed up to deal with the scene, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican

No students were harmed.

The pledge has students promise to never bring a gun to school, never use a gun to "settle a personal problem or dispute" and to "use my influence with my friends to keep them from using guns to settle disputes." 

According to the pledge's website, more than 10 million students have signed it during the past 18 years. 

PAC Attack Lacks Facts

State representative hit hard for vote she didn't make

Local NewsThursday, October 16, 2014 by Joey Peters

A Super PAC mailer targeting incumbent state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard blasts her for voting in favor of expunging criminal records. The problem? She actually voted against it.

The glossy mailer, sent to residents in Garcia Richard's hotly contested House District 43, which includes Los Alamos and part of Santa Fe County, comes from Advance New Mexico Now. It features a dark photo of a classroom with the ominous words "A violent criminal working in a day care center ... And no one knew?" 

On the back is a photo of Garcia Richard, a Democrat who won election to the more conservative district two years ago. Next to the photo are words accusing her of voting "to HIDE arrest records from employers like daycare centers and schools." 

The mailer repeats this claim three more times, then accuses her of "putting children's lives in danger" and "protecting predators." 

"Stephanie Garcia Richard's politics are so extreme, she even voted against requiring sex offenders who move to New Mexico from out of the country to register with the state so we can track their residence," it reads.

The mailer backs up all of these troubling claims with one footnote: "Source: Senate Bill 294, 2013; Vetoed by Governor." 

But a quick check of the final vote count shows that Garcia Richard actually voted against the bill, known as the Criminal Record Expungement Act. The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Bernalillo, would have allowed people to contest and remove certain criminal records in certain situations. A person convicted of a misdemeanor, for example, would have been allowed to petition a judge to drop the crime off their record five years after the charge as long as no other crimes were committed. 

The bill was designed to ease certain restrictions on people's records and passed both chambers in 2013 by wide margins, including a unanimous "yes" vote in the state Senate. But Garcia Richard voted against it because she says that criminal records "need to remain on the record for public safety."

"If you have done wrong, I believe that record should stand," she tells SFR. 

As for the claim that Garcia Richard voted against tracking sex offenders, the expungement bill wouldn't have allowed them to petition their records to judges. But again, she voted against the bill.

"I'm flabbergasted, completely flabbergasted," Garcia Richard says of the PAC mailer. "This information finds itself in constituents' homes as though it's accurate. Since when did we get away with supporting our claims without evidence?"

She says she hopes that voters read all PAC mailers, including ones that attack her opponent, "with a critical eye."

Garcia Richard is in the thick of a heated election campaign against Republican Los Alamos County Councilor Geoff Rodgers. Republicans are aiming to regain control of her legislative seat, which is key for the party to potentially take control of the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in more than half a century.

Matthew Chandler, a former district attorney who heads Advance New Mexico Now, doesn't deny that the PAC got the facts wrong. But he says Garcia Richard's voting record on public safety "swings back and forth depending on who's in the room." 

"Perhaps the more appropriate citation," he writes in an email, "is her statement to the Albuquerque Journal that she supports legislation to hide violent criminals’ arrest records—removing their arrest records from public view."

He's referring to a recent candidate survey that asks whether she would support a narrower type of expungement that would only affect people charged but not convicted of a crime. 

"Would you support or oppose a law providing that court and police records for people arrested but not convicted of a crime could be removed from public view? (This would not include crimes against children, sex offenses and drunken driving)."

Garcia Richard responded with, "I would support such a law, based on the right that an individual is innocent until proven guilty." 

Look for more mailers to attack Garcia Richard on this before the Nov. 4 general election.

"The next mailer will appropriately reflect her position, quoting her October 1st statement to the Albuquerque Journal," Chandler says.   

Candidate Chat with Ray Powell

Land Commissioner Ray Powell wants to keep his job

Local NewsThursday, October 16, 2014 by SFR

Ray Powell knows about the job of New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands. He served in the elected position from 1993 to 2002, then ran again and was re-elected for the current term.

Powell faces a challenge from Republican Aubrey Dunn. We invited Dunn to participate in this video interview, but he declined. Hear from more candidates by visiting our Candidate Chat page.

Absentee voting is already taking place for the general election. Final balloting happens on Election Day, Nov. 4.





Secret Plan

Former Interstate Stream Commission director sues over alleged violations of NM Open Meetings Act for Gila plan

Local NewsThursday, October 16, 2014 by Laura Paskus
There’s a new battle breaking out in the war over the Gila River—the future of which will be decided within the next 76 days.

This time, the salvo isn’t over endangered fish, water rights or even how much a new diversion project on the Gila in southwestern New Mexico might cost taxpayers.

Rather, it has to do with transparency.

Yesterday, Norman Gaume, a retired director of the state’s Interstate Stream Commission, sued his former agency for violating the Open Meetings Act. Filed in the state’s First Judicial District court in Santa Fe, the suit alleges the commission routinely violated the state’s law on meetings and transparency during its planning for the Gila.

Having had 10 years to study the issues, the commission must decide by the end of the year if New Mexico will meet future water demands in rural Southwestern New Mexico through efficiency and conservation or divert the Gila’s waters, build a “New Mexico Unit” of the Central Arizona Project and trade water with a Native American tribe near Phoenix.

Represented by Brian Egolf, of the Santa Fe-based Egolf + Ferlic + Day, Gaume is petitioning the court for a temporary restraining order and injunction, saying that the commission’s Gila subcommittee – chaired by Buford Harris, an irrigator in southern New Mexico – has met regularly since 2010 without issuing public notice or opening the meetings to citizens.

Gaume has been a vocal opponent of diversion since earlier this year, when he began questioning the engineering plans and costs of the proposed projects.

“I really thought in the beginning that pointing out the facts or what we need to be evaluating would be sufficient,” says Gaume, who directed the commission between 1997 and 2002 and until recently had a contract with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation nonprofit. “But I’ve concluded that facts don’t matter,” he says. “I’ve concluded that all the decision-making is being conducted in secret. And that’s against the law.”

Gaume points out that the opening paragraph of the state’s Open Meetings Act which states, "All persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”

Given its potential economic and environmental impacts, the Gila project, he says, “really needs robust public discussion.”

Earlier this year, Gaume also requested documents from the Interstate Stream Commission under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act. Specifically, he wanted to see how employees of the commission had determined how much water a diversion project on the Gila would actually capture.

But the state has denied release of that data, saying that the staff’s calculations are not subject to inspection under IPRA.

The state agency did not respond to SFR requests for comment or information. But under IPRA, an agency can claim an exemption restricting the release of state agency databases for commercial or political purposes.

One retired state employee says the commission’s refusal to release the data is ironic.

Speaking of his experiences working with the Interstate Stream Commission on projects across the state, including on the Rio Grande and the Pecos River, David Propst, formerly of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, says the commission’s staff and contractors routinely request raw data and even original field notes from other agencies and contractors.

This is a practice that dates back more than a decade.

“They’ve got a history of demanding the raw data from other agencies if they happen to not like what the results are,” Propst says. “It’s really ironic that the ISC is refusing to release data and yet they have no qualms demanding the original, raw data from others.”

 

Hospital Peace

After months of negotiations, union and Christus St. Vincent hospital management reach deal

Local NewsThursday, October 16, 2014 by Justin Horwath

Top union delegates say they've negotiated a contract with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center management that they will recommend for approval by members of District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.

A hospital spokesman says that management hopes union members will vote to approve the contract this Saturday. "After months of hard work and bargaining in good faith," writes hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado, "we are delighted that NM1199 has indicated to us that it would favorably recommend the latest version of the contract to its members."

The union, which represents the hospital's nurses and technical workers, has been picketing the hospital for two months after talks between the two sides dissolved due to disagreements over staffing levels at Northern New Mexico's largest hospital. Nurses said that staffing levels below industry averages strained caregivers and risked patient safety while the hospital disagreed.

Calling the new contract an "important step forward," District 1199 New Mexico President Fonda Osborn says in a statement that the "staffing language that we were able to negotiate is not exactly what we expected when we went into negotiations, we feel that it will give us a foundation that will stabilize staffing on each unit and give us what we need to enforce it."
District 1199 New Mexico President Fonda Osborn
Justin Horwath

One of the central issues of the tension between the two parties was whether to etch provisions in the new contract that would give the union the ability to enforce any agreed-upon staffing levels through an independent party. The union contended the hospital violated the staffing provisions of its previous three-year contract, which expired in July. The hospital replied that it didn't want third-party review of what should be internal management decisions over staffing.

Osborn writes that the hospital "has agreed to look at staffing on a shift by shift basis and we have negotiated a penalty if the hospital is unable to schedule enough staff to cover the average daily census needs."

Earlier in the talks, union members also expressed frustration that Mayor Javier Gonzales didn't support their stance to the extent that his predecessor David Coss supported the union during the last round of bargaining in 2011. The union didn't endorse any candidates in the last mayoral election.

But in her statement issued last night, Osborn thanked Gonzales for bringing the "parties back to the table and standing for his community and its health care employees."

“It has been quite a struggle but we believe that our efforts to inform the community with our informational pickets and communicating with our elected officials and working together with several community groups we have moved the mountain," reads her statement issued late Wednesday night.

Bud Boom

Colorado recreational marijuana dispensaries open closer to New Mexico border

Local NewsWednesday, October 15, 2014 by Justin Horwath

You can almost smell the bud from Santa Fe. 

Since a Colorado amendment went into effect on Jan. 1 that legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, dispensaries have sprouted up across the state. At first, the closest place to ours where adults could legally purchase pot was Pueblo, a steel mill town that's roughly 280 miles north of Santa Fe, almost a four hour drive on I-25. 

Now the bud boom has reached even closer to the New Mexico border. 

(For a helpful guide on buying recreational pot in Colorado, click here).

Pagosa Springs now has two dispensaries open for business. The ski town in the San Juan National Forest is about 150 miles from Santa Fe, a jaunt up US 84 that'll last about two hours and 45 minutes.

Bill Delany, owner of Good Earth Meds, says his dispensary started selling recreational pot on Sept. 12.

Delany actually says he lived in Santa Fe from 1996 to 2005, selling mobile homes. He says that when he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 1999, cannabis allowed him to treat the disease and get off the prescription pills. 

He says his shop, which has been selling medical marijuana for five years, has a more "professional feel" than a lot of dispensaries in Colorado, and that his main demographic is baby boomers. 

When SFR chronicled our mission to legally purchase pot, we had trouble with the Best Western in Pueblo, which charged us an additional fee just for having pot in the room. In Pagosa Springs, all the rooms at the First Inn are "420-friendly," says an employee there, except for one, which is a designated tobacco room. The hotel is located at 260 E US Highway 160.

Yet another dispensary in the town, Pagosa Organic Therapeutics, was the first place to start selling recreational pot in the Four Corners area. Located on Bastille Drive, it's open seven days a week. 

Durango is a bit farther from Santa Fe than Pagosa Springs, 242 miles, or almost four hours driving up US 550. Durango Organics is open for business for recreational users. An employee there says the owner had been busy budtending and adds that the shop is open from 10 am-6:30 pm every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. 


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