Congressman requests records on Airport Road nuke facility

Rep. Ben Ray Luján asks state, EPA to clarify health risks of old Eberline Instruments building

A year after SFR reported on a company's improper handling of radioactive materials in the heart of Santa Fe's Southside, US Rep. Ben Ray Luján is urging the state's Radioactive Control Bureau to clarify its position on a delayed plan to decommission the site.

Luján, a Democrat who represents the state's 3rd Congressional District, also sent a letter to the EPA, asking the federal agency to release the results of an investigation into environmental contamination that it initiated in 2009. The pair of letters signifies the first known attempt by a member of Congress to account for the full extent of contamination since the building shut its doors more than a decade ago.

The land and building located at 5981 Airport Road and is currently owned by the Thermo Fisher LLC. Starting in the 1950s, the property was the site of Eberline Instruments, which made radiation detection equipment that it shipped to nuclear facilities all over the world. Radionuclides were stored and handled at the site in order to test the equipment. By 1981, Eberline was the city's largest employer.

Thermo Fisher later bought the facility and subsequently shut down manufacturing in 2007. The red brick building has sat mostly abandoned at the corner of Airport Road and South Meadows Road since then, in an area that has seen significant residential and commercial development over the last several decades. The county plans to build a children's park right next door.

Since its closure, Thermo Fisher has repeatedly misrepresented the amount of nuclear material stored at the site. And the state has made almost no effort to update the surrounding community about potential health risks associated with the site.

According to internal emails and communications obtained by SFR last September, in 2015 officials with the Radioactive Control Bureau (a division of the New Mexico Environment Department) discovered Thermo Fisher understated the amount of potentially deadly nucleotides stored at the facility. They also found radiation levels at the site to be higher than what Thermo Fisher previously disclosed.

It was part of a pattern of changing stories from Thermo Fisher that extended back to at least 2007. As a result of the 2015 inspection, the Environment Department revoked Thermo Fisher's license to transport americium-241 from Eberline to Los Alamos.

The Environment Department then reached a settlement with Thermo Fisher in February 2016 wherein the company agreed to finance the state's transportation of the americium-241 away from the site, but just a few months later, the RCB again found that Thermo Fisher had not disclosed the existence of even more dangerous matter at the site.

It's still unknown how much radiological material, if any, might be stored at Eberline. According to Luján's letter to RCB chief Santiago Rodriguez, Thermo Fisher submitted a proposal for decommissioning the site to the RCB nearly two years ago, but the RCB has still not give the company feedback on the proposal.

"Since the initial review by the RCB is just the first step in the lengthy process to safely and securely dispose of the site's radiological materials, I am concerned with the length of time it is taking your bureau to complete this review," Luján wrote in the letter dated Oct. 29.

The congressman requested the RCB send his office an update "on the progress and timeline" of decommissioning the area.

The letter Luján sent to EPA Region 6 Administrator Anne Idsal on the same day also raises questions about the federal agency's past attempts to assess the site for hazards to human and environmental health.

The EPA initially identified the Eberline site for investigation under the Superfund program in 1990 before declaring five years later that no further remedial action was needed. But in 2009, it re-opened its investigation into the site's contamination.

Luján, who met with SFR's editor and publisher last month, asked the EPA to inform his office of any actions taken as a result of the review it re-opened in 2009. In a statement to SFR, Luján says people should feel like state agencies care for their safety.

"The public deserves to be kept informed about what's going on in their community, and so far there are too many unanswered questions here," Luján says.

Environment Department spokeswoman Katy Dougherty-Diff tells SFR that the department does not yet have a response to Luján's letter. A spokesperson for Idsal at the EPA had not responded to an email from SFR by publication time.

Editor's note: Because of an editing error, we originally reported that Rep. Luján represents New Mexico's 1st Congressional district. In fact, he represents the 3rd Congressional district.

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