Testing the Waters

Unannounced drilling at former radioactive Eberline plant raises concerns from Southside neighbors

ThermoFisher is drilling three wells to test water quality on the site—a step in the newest attempt to decommission the property. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

New drilling at a former radiation detection equipment on Airport Road has nearby residents calling for more transparency due to safety concerns.

Sarah Stevenson, an attorney for ThermoFisher, tells SFR at present three wells are being drilled and installed to test water quality—a step in the process to decommission the former Eberline facility.

Ellen Stone, who lives within viewing distance of the site near South Meadows Road, tells SFR she saw the drilling but didn’t know its purpose. She adds she didn’t know anything about Eberline when she first moved into the surrounding neighborhood in 2020.

“The lack of information is kind of wild…I feel as though they should have been informing us,” Stone says. “I would have appreciated knowing what they were doing rather than seeing it at a stoplight. It shouldn’t be so hard to learn about a potentially dangerous situation so close to my home.”

The facility, which opened in 1953 as the Eberline Instrument Company, has been a source of concern for surrounding residents for years. Thermo Electron Corporation, which eventually combined with Fisher Scientific, purchased the company in 1979. Manufacturing ceased in 2007, the same year officials discovered ThermoFisher had failed to maintain adequate records of radioactive material moving in and out of the plant.

Since then, the owners have attempted to decommission the property in order to sell it on multiple occasions. SFR reported in 2020 that the state expected Thermo to demolish the building by October of that year, for example.

Stone only found out about contamination concerns, however, during a public meeting for developer Homewise’s Los Prados project—a 161-unit subdivision approved last year by the Santa Fe City Council. The land for the housing—which had previously been approved for the county’s open space program before being sold to Homewise—sits right next to the site.

As such, Homewise commissioned a radiological survey from environmental consulting company NV5 in December 2021, which resulted in a January 2022 report claiming the levels of radiation on the property were the “same as ambient environmental levels present in the rest of the community surveyed.” However, some residents disputed the findings, including a former geologist from the state’s Environment Department.

In response to ongoing concerns, Homewise Chief External Affairs Officer Johanna Gilligan tells SFR the organization takes safety “very seriously” in its work and trusts the consultant.

“We are a mission-based nonprofit, so if we had any concerns, we would not be proceeding,” Gilligan says. “The experts we’ve hired have indicated that it’s totally safe.”

Homewise anticipates the project will go before the Planning Commission this fall for preliminary plat approval.

Stevenson disputes allegations the company has lacked transparency, and notes “a lot of operations to date” don’t require public notice. “We have a permit, and that’s a public document,” Stevenson says. “And this is proceeding with full knowledge of the state Radiation Control Bureau, which is a public entity, and in New Mexico we have access to public documents.”

Tiempos Lindos Homeowners Association President Marlow Morrison of the adjacent neighborhood says that answer is insufficient. She says she would not have known how to make a public records request had she not been friends with an investigative reporter, and adds people need access to the information “without having to go through so much red tape” to get it.

“When there is activity of any kind that’s very noticeable on the property, somebody should be reporting to citizens on that,” Morrison says. “So many people in the area don’t even know that this is a site that needs decommissioning.”

District 3 City Councilor Pilar Faulkner—who served on the city’s Planning Commission during the approval of Los Prados’ master plan and zoning changes—tells SFR residents brought the new drilling to her attention. While the city has no regulatory oversight of ThermoFisher’s work, “it’s our job to be transparent with the community,” so individuals won’t come to “worst case scenario” conclusions, she says. Faulkner adds she’s working to meet with the company to try to schedule a public meeting at which residents can get information “directly from the source.”

Stevenson also notes the Radiation Control Bureau’s regulations require a public meeting after the decommission plan is submitted.

As for that timeline, Stevenson says the site owners expect work to be completed this month, with water sampling results slated to come back from a lab in September. She adds ThermoFisher expects the tests will show no impact to groundwater, and the company plans to submit the final decommissioning plan in the late fall.

Even after that, however, actually decommissioning the property will take longer, state Radiation Control Bureau Chief Santiago Rodriguez tells SFR, as officials will need between three to six months to review the plan and ensure ThermoFisher met expectations.

“These documents are not small. They are hundreds—maybe even thousands—of pages,” Rodriguez says, “so it will take some time because we want to do a thorough job.”

If approved, ThermoFisher will enter into decommissioning status and have a two-year window to complete the plan, the chief says.

At this point, he adds, there is no concern for safety from the Radiation Control Bureau’s perspective. Regulations require radiation levels to be under 25 millirems—a measurement of biological damage—per year.

“The sampling they have done has not shown that there is radiation of quantities of concern,” he says. “There’s no radiation at that location that exceeds those limits. They’ve gotten rid of just about every radioisotope that was on the license that was authorized for the principal activities during the heyday of Eberline.”

However, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety Executive Director Joni Arends tells SFR she believes “the harm has already been done,” citing reports of accidents and worker exposures in the facility over the years. A toxic material called americium-241 remained in the building until 2016, for example.

“As a precautionary measure, at least annual sampling should be done in the community directly west of the Thermo Eberline facility,” she says. “If they find something, immediate action needs to be taken.”

In an email, the City of Santa Fe’s Water Resources and Conservation Manager William Schneider tells SFR regulatory oversight falls under NMED, but adds he believes city water pipes near the “eyesore” site would not be affected by contaminated soil. Furthermore, he says city officials are working with NMED under the city’s source water protection programs to address “numerous legacy sites with residual chemical site releases…Progress is slow, and remediation actions are expensive.”

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