Still in the Air

Some Southsiders say the specter of radiation is enough reason to pump the brakes on a proposed housing development

Neighbors of a proposed housing development near South Meadows Road have raised myriad objections to the project, from concerns about obstructed views to the death of a long-used open space to allegations of a shady deal in which Santa Fe County quietly sold the property.

Now, they’re returning to a different argument they hope will persuade Santa Fe city councilors to halt a zoning change for the 22-acre site: the unknown dangers of what a long-shuttered radiation-detection equipment facility left behind on the property next door.

Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, tells SFR that while she’s not a fan of the development proposal, she also sees additional attention as an opportunity to clean up an area that once housed radioactive materials.

“Before any construction or any decision is made about the 22 acres, I think we need to understand the depth and breadth of the contamination,” she says.

The old Eberline manufacturing building on Airport Road has sat unused since 2007. For years, what became its parent company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, has said it was moving toward cleaning up the property and making it safe enough to sell. A toxic material called americium-241 remained in the building until 2016. The head of the state department tasked with regulating the property’s decommissioning says there’s nothing to worry about—that the property poses no greater risk than most other parts of the city. And a company the developer, Homewise, paid to assess the proposed housing tract also says everything is fine.

But those who oppose the new construction are not so sure.

SFR has reported extensively on the old Eberline site and, for years, the company has insisted it is taking stock of what’s on the property for radiation risks. Two years after the state’s Radiation Control Bureau, a division of the Environment Department, told SFR the site was on its way to being cleaned up via a formal process called decomissioning, the story remains the same.

Bureau Chief Santiago Rodriguez tells SFR he could only speculate on how long it will take the company to complete a survey and submit a decommission plan. Once those steps are finished, a two-year clock would start for the company to follow through with its plan.

Thermo Fisher did not respond to SFR’s inquiries for this story. The name of the property owner has changed over the years, but the latest information from Santa Fe County records lists a company called Eberline Instrument Corp. as the current owner.

The land upon which Homewise wants to build is zoned as open space and had been owned by the county’s Open Space and Trails Program since 2001 before the county sold the land last spring. Homewise, a nonprofit home builder, says it is suitable for 161 affordable homes and a park.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods who oppose the development have relentlessly pushed back, arguing Santa Fe County broke its own rules when selling the property to Homewise and that the space serves the community better as an oasis in the middle of the ever-growing metro area. Now, those same residents are reminding councilors that new homeowners may have high levels of radiation as neighbors, too.

Arends says she’s been worried about the old Eberline building for decades.

“There was concern 35 years ago about the facility, about workers getting hurt, about the operation,” Arends says. “So it’s been on our radar since the beginning of our organization.”

SFR’s reporting renewed those concerns, she says, and they only grew when Homewise began talks of buying the adjacent property. Now, Arends says, is a perfect opportunity to bring more attention to the site and hopefully start the cleanup process.

A county official told SFR in 2017 that an environmental assessment was completed before the county bought the open space and there were no red flags to speak of.

A radiological survey Homewise commissioned from environmental consulting company NV5 in December 2021 resulted in a January 2022 report claiming the levels of radiation on the Homewise property were the “same as ambient environmental levels present in the rest of the community surveyed.”

Dave Englert, who lives near the Homewise property and worked 25 years as a geologist for the state Environment Department, tells SFR he doesn’t trust the NV5 assessment. Englert spent most of his career before retirement conducting environmental surveillance at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“I can only say quite simply, I didn’t think it was adequate,” Englert says of the NV5 survey.

More specifically, he says, the survey didn’t go far enough in describing the scope of the work at the Eberline facility. He also calls the detection equipment used in the survey “inadequate” and says the results don’t account for what sort of contaminated materials might be kicked up when the clean-up process starts, whenever that might be.

“Anything that is done between now and a full closure can, in fact, re-expose the neighborhood,” he says.

The years worth of assurances from Thermo Fisher, the new iteration of Eberline, that decommissioning was on the horizon, along with reports that the company previously significantly understated how much radioactive material was on the old Eberline property has left Englert untrusting.

“The more they delayed, the more I felt there was something to suspect,” he says.

But Rodriguez says there’s no reason not to trust the process.

“There’s nothing to hide, there’s nothing mysterious out there, there’s no excessive levels of radiation,” he tells SFR, adding that there are small, naturally occurring levels of radiation across the state that could be brought to the surface in any land development.

“I get it’s scary, but I’m confident that the bureau and the department is holding the licensee, i.e. Thermo Fisher, to the regulations in the statutes and we are actually requiring a little bit more stringency in some aspects of the decommissioning, because there’s people all around there,” Rodriguez says.

At least one of those standards, he says, is to require Thermo Fisher to set up a tent before major digging begins to prevent possibly contaminated soil from blowing into nearby neighborhoods.

The City Council is set to consider at a meeting Feb. 1 whether to approve the zoning change Homewise has requested on its tract. Questions about Eberline may or may not influence councilors’ decision, but community advocates including Arends and Englert are already preparing written comments, hoping the council will reconsider the appropriateness of allowing new homes next to the old manufacturing site.

But when SFR asked Rodriguez if he would have a problem with living in the proposed development, he plainly said, “I would not.”

“If I had any concerns, I would ask questions and I would do my research or my homework,” he says. “But I would not have a problem living adjacent to that place or on [Thermo Fisher’s] land when it’s ready for release.”

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