Santa Fe's benefit from LANL coalition questioned

Sean P. Thomas, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·3 min read

Mar. 18—Concerns from City Councilor Renee Villarreal over how the city of Santa Fe would benefit by remaining in an amended joint power agreement with the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities continued during Wednesday night's Quality of Life Committee meeting.

Santa Fe is one of nine cities, counties, towns and tribal governments that make up the regional coalition, which was established in 2011 to give communities in Northern New Mexico more say in decision-making related to job development and cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Villarreal, however, questioned how the coalition advocates for city policy stances on requests for expanded cleanup at the site and the reduction of plutonium pit production.

"It's hard for me to try to justify RCLC based off the history of the lab and because I think it's a conflict of interest," Villarreal said. "We have RCLC, which is funded primarily by the Department of Energy funds, yet DOE doesn't necessarily listen to the resolutions that we put forward about reducing plutonium pit production. They don't ask us what we think as city of Santa Fe residents."

The city is one of the last holdouts to sign the amended agreement, which would remove Los Alamos County as financial agent, a role it has held since 2011. The agreement was discussed earlier this month during a Finance Committee meeting but was moved to the Quality of Life Committee for further discussion.

Among other proposed benefits, the coalition provides an opportunity for a unified voice to advocate for local communities in talks with the lab and the U.S. Department of Energy, said Santa Fe City Councilor Michael Garcia and Los Alamos County Councilor and coalition Treasurer David Izraelevitz.

"If the city of Santa Fe did not participate, sure, they can have a voice in the matter. But when there is a coalition of voices, it provides that much more of an advocacy effort," Garcia said.

The Quality of Life Committee moved the agreement forward to the mayor and city councilors without recommendation, with Villarreal voting no and Garcia abstaining.

Villarreal questioned the coalition's clout, saying she believed that community organizations and watchdog groups have led the way in keeping the laboratory accountable.

"It feels like it's political positioning by LANL and the DOE to say we are doing something, we have RCLC, they are holding us accountable," Villarreal said.

The city of Santa Fe pays $10,000 a year in contributions to the coalition, alongside other cities and counties in the coalition. The U.S. Department of Energy previously provided $100,000 in grant funds, but the Energy Department's inspector general in 2019 recommended the federal agency seek reimbursement of up to $300,00 from the coalition after accusing it of failing to account for spending and prohibited lobbying practices.

A year prior, the New Mexico state auditor also identified spending issues, including improper travel expenses involving state Rep. Andrea Romero, a Santa Fe Democrat who previously served as the coalition's executive director. Her contract was not renewed and the coalition is without an executive director.

While City Councilor Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez said she's not ready to give up the city's "seat at the table," she would like more information on how the city benefits.