Embattled coalition says it's a 'powerful voice' - Albuquerque Journal

Embattled coalition says it’s a ‘powerful voice’

The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities spent part of last week touting its past accomplishments and present importance, just as members of the beleaguered taxpayer-funded group’s board and new executive director were back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., attending the same event that has been at the center of controversy most of this year.

Still under fire for the spending on booze and baseball tickets that took place on the 2017 trip to the nation’s capital for a workshop, the RCLC put out a news release last week through Loka Creative, a Santa Fe-based digital marketing agency.

Titled “Under New Leadership, Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Continues to Serve as Essential Advocate for Northern New Mexico,” the release hyped the RCLC’s community role, boasted about helping to attract millions in federal dollars for hazardous waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory and promoted the coalition’s new leadership, which is now working to “right the wrongs of the past.”

A critic of both the lab and the Regional Coalition called the press release “self-aggrandizing BS.”

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico also said that the RCLC actually “colludes” with the U.S. Department of Energy – which happens to be the coalition’s primary funder – and the lab in support of “false cleanup on the cheap.”

The coalition news release came out the week after the Santa Fe New Mexican became the third newspaper to call for the RCLC to be dissolved. The Journal North, in an Aug. 10 editorial, said that in the wake of a critical special audit of coalition spending, the group “seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.”

Two weeks later, Rio Grande Sun publisher Robert Trapp penned an editorial calling the RCLC a “waste of taxpayer dollars.” The New Mexican said it was time to “pull the plug” on the RCLC.

RCLC’s contract with former director Andrea Romero, now the Democratic nominee for northern Santa Fe County’s House District 46 seat, expired earlier this year amid the ongoing controversy over spending.

The RCLC, which gets half of its $200,000 annual budget from DOE, and the rest from Los Alamos County and other local governments, is made up of nine cities, towns, counties and pueblos. It advocates for federal funding for waste cleanup at LANL, and economic development and jobs related to the lab.

During the D.C. trip last September for a workshop on nuclear waste cleanup put on by the Energy Communities Alliance, members of the coalition and some guests racked up a $1,850 bill for 16 people at an Italian restaurant – $380 of it for alcohol, including a $28 glass of WhistlePig whiskey that Los Alamos County Councilor Rick Reiss has fessed up to – and attended a Washington Nationals baseball game for which Romero later received reimbursement.

Those were among tens of thousands of dollars of payments flagged as improper expenses in an independent investigative report commissioned by Los Alamos County, the fiscal agent for the coalition, and a special audit by the state Auditor’s Office, both released last month.

Romero says she didn’t knowingly do anything wrong and that all reimbursements were approved either by the RCLC board or its treasurer. She has repaid $1,876.

Now, Eric Vasquez serves as executive director of the RCLC, which was awarded a new contract for administrative services to Chicanos Por La Causa-New Mexico in July. Vasquez partnered with CPLC-NM president and CEO Roger Gonzales to put together an application.

Vasquez said Loka Creative, the PR firm that issued the recent news release, wasn’t hired as part of a campaign to counter negative publicity. Loka has done work for Chicanos Por La Causa, he said, and was called upon to help straighten out some technical difficulties the RCLC was having with its website and email system. “They (Loka Creative) do work on a regular basis for CPLC-New Mexico,” Vasquez said. “They are the IT contractor and communication contractor for things like this.”

‘Keeping an eye’ on DOE?

In the news release, the RCLC framed itself as a champion for northern New Mexicans, bringing communities together and providing “leverage to demand answers” from the DOE, which is in charge of LANL, and the lab itself regarding environmental cleanup and funding. It says the RCLC’s leverage is a “powerful voice in leading LANL to reinvest in local communities.”

Heretofore, the RCLC has not been part of the intense public debate in northern New Mexico over the environmental impact of LANL’s nuclear weapons enterprise or questioned the safety of operations at the lab, as private watchdog and advocacy groups have. But now the coalition is portraying itself as an agency that keeps on eye on the DOE.

“For years our communities have stood alone and separate, without a voice on issues that directly affect them,” Vasquez is quoted as saying in the news release. “With workloads increasing, keeping an eye on DOE activities is one more task that can easily fall by the wayside, leaving the DOE free to push its own priorities on our communities. That’s why the united front of the RCLC is imperative to community empowerment.” The RCLC also called itself a “powerful economic asset to the region.”

“Over the years, the RCLC has been successful in bringing millions of dollars of direct investment and budget increases to the region,” it said.

Among the “community victories” the RCLC takes credit for is “an increase of $42 million in cleanup spending to the region, moving dangerous contaminants from the land.” The RCLC “also preserves jobs and economic investment in communities thanks to its advocacy that fines against LANL be used to fund projects like road repairs,” the release said.

The Valley Daily Post, an online publication part-owned by Vasquez, and its sister newspaper, the Los Alamos Daily Post, posted the news release online in its entirety.

The Journal North’s editor offered to run a version of the release as an op-ed opinion piece, but the Loka Creative account manager who distributed the release declined. So the Journal North asked some follow-up questions, including on what basis it was taking credit for a $42 million increase in cleanup spending at LANL and the use of fines paid by LANL – apparently a reference to a $74 million settlement payment to state government that DOE agreed to make after a radioactive waste drum improperly packed at Los Alamos ruptured and shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad – for road repairs.

“We are not taking credit, nor are we claiming responsibility for the fines,” Vasquez said in an emailed response. “We are saying that actions of the RCLC helped to ensure the fines did not take money out of the communities, but rather that the fines were used to fund needed infrastructure projects in the area, and keeping the money here, spent here, and employing workers here.”

Coalition critics have questioned what advocacy role for federal funding the coalition plays that isn’t covered by the work of New Mexico’s congressional delegation in Washington. Vasquez emphasized in his response that various successes have been a collaborative effort, but the role of the RCLC was “indispensable.”

“Everyone had a role in these wins, but success was ensured thanks to the guidance and structure provided by the RCLC,” he said.

Asked to explain the $42 million that RCLC says it helped bring in, Vasquez responded by saying that the federal budget for environmental cleanup at LANL in fiscal year 2018 was $190 million. “Pressure from the RCLC and its partner communities pushed DOE and Congress to increase the amount to $220 million.” He said that the 2019 budget increases cleanup spending by another $22 million.

“The RCLC has been the squeaky wheel which puts pressure on DOE to give New Mexico a fair share of the cleanup resources,” he said.

Nuclear Watch’s Coghlan scoffed at the RCLC news release’s assertions. “Far from keeping an eye on LANL, they suck up to the lab,” he said.

“In reality, the Regional Coalition is actually against comprehensive cleanup at the lab despite the facade they put up,” said Coghlan. He said the RCLC has “acquiesced” to a recent, less restrictive legal agreement with New Mexico state government on cleanup of the lab’s so-called “legacy waste” from decades of nuclear weapons work. Coghlan and other watchdog groups have complained that DOE’s long-term cleanup plan allows for tons of hazardous material to remain buried on the LANL campus.

“What I object to is the Regional Coalition claiming it’s a champion for cleanup, when by omission it colludes with the lab in support of DOE’s false cleanup and cleanup on the cheap,” Coghlan said.

He said that many groups – including his Nuke Watch and the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, created by the DOE specifically to provide local input on environmental issues – have been more vocal on cleanup issues than the RCLC.

Latest D.C. meeting

Last week, Vasquez was in Washington for this year’s workshop put on by Energy Communities Alliance.

Vasquez says he was the RCLC’s only representative this time, although some officials from Los Alamos County also made the trip. “But they were there representing the county at ECA and not the RCLC,” he wrote in reply to questions emailed to him by the Journal.

Vasquez said Roger Gonzales, of Chicanos Por La Causa, also made the trip and attended part of the conference, “but he was also in D.C. for other CPLC business so his travel expenses were not paid for by any RCLC funds,” he wrote.

There are no expense reimbursements for Vasquez to submit for approval, as Romero did after last year’s meeting, because the management agreement between the coalition and CPLC stipulates that the contractor will absorb such costs.

Vasquez said he paid for his flight using a voucher, “so was able to avoid using my RCLC funds for airfare for this trip. We did pay for ground transportation to go to meetings, using Lyft,” he said. His hotel expenses came out of the RCLC budget, “however I stayed at an off-site hotel and used my AAA discount to get a lower room rate and saved a little money,” he said.

No meals or alcohol were paid for by the RCLC, he said, and the coalition hosted no dinners or trips to baseball games. Vasquez said he also met with officials in Washington, including a face-to-face meeting with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall.

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