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Jury to decide compensation in Las Conchas Fire

SANTA FE, N.M. — A jury today will begin to hear arguments over how much money two New Mexico pueblos should be awarded for damage caused by Las Conchas Fire.

The blaze broke out in June 2011 when a gust of wind pushed an aspen tree onto a Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative power line located on Forest Service land. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc. provided wholesale electricity distributed by the cooperative.

In October 2015, a Sandoval County jury found that both JMEC and Tri-State were negligent, and that their negligence caused damages to the plaintiffs. They further found that JMEC was 75 percent responsible, Tri-State was 20 percent responsible, and that the Forest Service was 5 percent responsible.

Since then, according to court documents, JMEC and the more than 300 individual plaintiffs in the case “reached a confidential agreement” resolving all claims. That leaves Tri-State as the only defendant remaining on the hook for damages in the trial that begins today. Based on the original jury’s findings, the company is responsible for paying 20 percent of the amount the second jury comes to, though the company says it plans to appeal.

Over the course of the three-week trial, the jury will hear witnesses presented by Jemez Pueblo, Cochiti Pueblo and Tri-State.

Mark Dow, the attorney representing Jemez Pueblo, said witnesses will likely speak about what was lost and the price to repair it. Jemez Pueblo, he said, saw 4,700 acres of its CaƱada de Cochiti charred. Cochiti Pueblo, he said, had roads, bridges and berms damaged.

“The Cochiti Pueblo has substantial infrastructure damage from the runoff from the fire,” he said.

Dow did not say how much the pueblos are seeking in damages. “Just a reasonable amount,” he said.

But Lee Boughey, spokesman for Tri-State, called the pueblos’ assessment of damages “unreasonable.” In a statement, he said that the company’s own calculation of damages is objective.

“It is based on a fair and reasonable approach to restoring the land, watersheds and infrastructure that is respectful to the pueblos’ values and would return their tribal lands to a healthy and safe condition for the long term,” he said.

“We respectfully disagree with the initial jury’s ruling on liability in the first trial,” Boughey said. “However, the damages trial must be completed before we can appeal the initial ruling.”

This is the first of three damages trials, Boughey said.

The next rounds will address additional plaintiffs.