Less Radioactive?

Former Southside radioactive manufacturing facility inches along in its clean-up and re-sale

A major biotech company finally has the beginnings of a timeline to clean up and maybe sell the Southside Santa Fe site where workers formerly manufactured radiation detection equipment.

The site at 5981 Airport Road, a vacant brick building surrounded by schools and residences, was once a major employment center in Santa Fe run by Eberline Instruments. The company was purchased in 1979 by Thermo Electron Corporation, which would eventually combine with Fisher Scientific.

Thermo Fisher Scientific shut down manufacturing there 2007. The owner of the property is now listed as Thermo Eberline LLC.

Thermo did not keep accurate records of toxic materials leaving and entering the site. And the company didn't document how much radioactive material remained.

But now, the state's Radiation Control Bureau, a division of the Environment Department, confirms a timeline, albeit a tentative one, for when Santa Feans could see a "decommissioned," or cleaned-up, lot.

The department can't say for sure how much or what types of contaminants could still be on the property.

"As of right now, at this time, there may be residual radioactive material that may be present," says Santiago Rodriguez, the chief of the bureau. "We thus far have not found anything, but we don't want to rule anything out. As a point of caution and assurance, we are taking this slowly and ensuring that they are testing on a regular basis and that if they find anything that they are notifying us of such data."

Bureau managers are in the initial phases of reviewing the Historical Site Assessment, a massive trove of documents detailing the property's entire history. The state had concerns about the submitted assessment, particularly what contaminants have been on the property and the company's "ability to analyze and quantify what potentially could remain after they start the cleanup process," according to Rodriguez.

Rodriguez tells SFR Thermo Fisher is working to address the state's concerns, and the department expects the company to submit its plan for demolition of the building and cleanup of the site by March 1.

The department writes in an email to SFR that Thermo is expected to decommission the site after demolishing the building by Oct. 1.

Once the bureau approves Thermo's decommissioning plan, the company must complete the work within two years, but Rodriguez tells SFR Thermo Fisher is "eager" to lower the levels of contamination on site and demolish the existing building in order to potentially prepare it for sale.

Thermo Fisher did not answer questions SFR posed about the decommissioning by presstime.

"Once the facility is formally decommissioned and they have done it to unrestricted parameters, then anything could be built there," Rodriguez says. "[Thermo Fisher] would disclose that there was a facility there and what types of activities occurred there. But if the facility is clean to the appropriate standards, then there should be no issue with that."

"Unrestricted parameters" refers to levels of radioactivity that are below federal requirements. Rodriguez says the bureau asked Thermo Fisher to bring levels of radioactivity even lower than the maximum standard set by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Over the summer, Rodriguez told SFR transparency is important to the department and it would provide more information to the public in that spirit.

But so far, that hasn't happened, and there are no plans for further public disclosure. That's in order to avoid unnecessary alarm, Rodriguez says.

"What we would do is we would draw attention to it and we'd get people spun up about something that isn't ready to go as far as decommissioning is concerned," Rodriguez says.

Thermo takes regular samples of the air, soil and building on the lot. The state reviews reports of the sample to make sure the company is following the rules—but tells SFR the records are not retained because there's no storage space available for the physical reports.

According to the bureau, domestic wells in the area are tested by the city of Santa Fe and the NMED Drinking Water Bureau, but to date, "all radiation monitoring for potential contamination has not indicated levels above background levels."

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