Taos County Withdraws from the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities

By KAY MATTHEWS

The hard work of anti-nuke groups Norteños for a Peaceful and Sustainable Future, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNC), Nuclear Watch New Mexico, and their friends and allies finally paid off at the Taos County Commission meeting on May 4. In a four to one vote (Mark Gallegos, District II, was the single no vote) the commissioners withdrew from the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) with the caveat to rejoin in the future if so desired.

The mission statement of the RCLC says, “The Regional Coalition is a conduit for Northern New Mexico communities to make a direct impact on local, state and federal government decision-making in regional economic development and nuclear cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). The Regional Coalition is comprised of elected and tribal officials representing their local communities to ensure national decisions incorporate local needs and interests.” These communities are the cities of Española, Santa Fe, and Taos, the counties of Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, and Taos, and the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh and Jemez Pueblo. The Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees LANL, contributes $100,000 annually to support the RCLC, while the member communities supply another $100,000.

Anyone who follows La Jicarita has some knowledge of the controversies surrounding the RCLC, which we’ve covered since its inception in 2011: illegal expenditures and reimbursements made by RCLC members and executive director Andrea Romero; an ensuing state audit; conflicts of interest with its contractor, Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico as well as LANL affiliated board members; loss of funding from the DOE over its accounting irregularities; nonparticipation of member Jemez Pueblo; and its current inability to fill an executive director position.

But the fundamental reason the anti-nuke groups have lobbied long and hard for norteño city, county and pueblos to reconsider membership in the RCLC and its role in their communities is that the organization has failed to restrict its mission to diversification and lobbying for comprehensive cleanup of legacy waste at LANL, its original intent. For several years community groups lobbied that it change the language in the JPA that implicitly supports funding for all missions at LANL, including the impending development of pits, or nuclear warheads, at a scale never before undertaken at the Lab. When the RCLC did release an amended JPA in 2020, it only changed the fiscal agent and the accounting process to avoid illegal lobbying.  

Suzie Schwartz, Erich Kuerschner, and Jean Nichols of Norteños for a Peaceful and Sustainable Future spoke during the commission hearing urging withdrawal. They all stressed that the amended JPA’s continued support of “all missions” at LANL fails to address the desires of Taos County citizens to change the Lab’s funding from its current 80 percent support of nuclear weapons development. The dangers of producing 30 pits per year at what has always been a Research and Development institution could lead us down the road to another Rocky Flats, the pit production facility in Colorado that became a Super Fund site of extensive plutonium contamination. The fact that most countries in the world (except the United States and other countries that currently produce nuclear weapons) signed the recently enacted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons puts the goal of pit production at LANL in stark contrast to the world’s desire to rid itself of nuclear capability.

Taos City Counselor Darien Fernandez, the current chair of the RCLC, spoke to defend the RCLC and ask the county to remain as a member. He claimed the coalition had worked hard to improve its accounting procedures and admitted that “while he personally opposed pit production we need to keep a seat at the table.”

After hearing these public comments, commissioner Jim Fambro made a motion to approve Taos County withdraw from the RCLC/JPA while monitoring its activities to possibly rejoin at a future date. During discussion, Fambro expressed his concern that he didn’t see any positive economic impact from the county’s membership in the RCLC, which brought up an interesting response from Darien Fernandez, who incorrectly claimed that the RCLC had funded last year’s University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research’s report that revealed the Lab’s economic impact on the surrounding communities has been negative. As La Jicarita previously reported, these negative costs are: Santa Fe County: $1,414,655; Taos County: $809,406; and Rio Arriba County: $3,215,566. The fiscal impact on Los Alamos County has been positive: $11,642,589 in Fiscal Year 2017. Erich Kuerschner corrected Fernandez that it was LANL that commissioned the study and also pointed out that LANL had tried to censure the information.

With that, the commissioners voted to withdraw from the RCLC. Who’s next? The City of Santa Fe has rejected the Amended JPA and is tentatively scheduled for an up or down vote on membership on May 12.  Santa Fe County is also reconsidering its membership in the RCLC.

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