Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) and surrounding regions

Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory via Associated Press

The death knell has been rung for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

The coalition's board approved a resolution Friday (May 21, 2021) to start "winding down" the consortium of local governments with economic ties to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The resolution directs the coalition's treasurer, Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz, and the group's fiscal agent, Los Alamos County, to take steps to complete a final audit and pay all remaining obligations and debts.

Coalition board Chairman and Taos Town Councilor Darien Fernandez and Vice Chairman Javier Sánchez, mayor of Española, could not be reached for comment.

The decision comes just weeks after two of the coalition's largest members, Santa Fe and Taos counties, voted to withdraw. The city of Santa Fe has also discussed leaving the coalition. Other members have been fairly absent from meetings in the lead up to the vote.

About 2,900 of the lab's 12,000 employees live in Santa Fe County.

Five coalition members voted in favor of the resolution, with Taos and Santa Fe counties, as well as Jemez Pueblo. Ohkay Owingeh was absent from the vote.

The coalition was formed in 2011 and consisted of nine local and tribal governments. It has come under scrutiny in recent months for a failure to affect business at the laboratory.

The resolution makes note of members' concerns, stating the coalition no longer serves its intended purpose - to advocate for waste cleanup, mission diversification and local economic development at the lab.

Some representatives have said there are better avenues to lobby the lab, including the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, which is involved with environmental cleanup at the lab, and the Buckman Direct Diversion Board. Those groups are largely concerned with environmental issues.

Santa Fe City Councilor Michael Garcia said he believes every government involved in the coalition will begin to engage the lab in a way that best merges environmental and economic concerns for their constituents.

The lab's footprint in Santa Fe is growing.

In February, the lab signed a lease for a 28,000-square-foot office on North Guadalupe and West Alameda streets. The office will hold 75 employees.

A month later, the lab announced a plan to bring 500 employees into two adjacent 78,000-square-foot office spaces on Pacheco Street.

"I think this is a great opportunity for city leadership to take a more engaged role in working with respective LANL leaders to ensure that Santa Fe's interests are being heard and met," Garcia said.

The coalition had been on rocky ground for some time.

It primarily was funded with fees from members and a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The latter dried up, however, after an Energy Department inspector general report in 2019 requested the agency seek up to $300,000 in reimbursements.

The Energy Department accused the coalition of taking part in prohibited lobbying practices and improper accounting of its spending.

The coalition has tried to recoup the federal funding, but Fernandez said uncertainty about the money put the coalition's future in doubt.

Lack of funding has impeded the coalition's search for a new executive director.

The coalition's last executive director, Eric Vasquez, voiced his intent to leave in July. The coalition has yet to attract a new director.

Vasquez took over after the coalition opted not to renew a contract for Andrea Romero.

Romero, who was elected to the state House of Representatives, was ordered by the coalition to repay $8,000 in funds for impermissible travel reimbursements identified by the State Auditor's Office in 2018. Nuclear watchdogs also have lobbed complaints over the coalition's support of a 2016 environmental consent order between the state and the Energy Department. Environmental groups have argued the order - a deal reached by former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez - weakens cleanup standards at the lab.

The New Mexico Environment Department, under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, filed a complaint in February seeking an end to the consent order and a more large-scale legacy cleanup framework.

This story originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of the Taos News

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