Nuclear Neighborhood

A company that made equipment to detect radiation left toxic material in a shuttered Santa Fe building

Enough radioactive material to endanger the whole city in the wrong hands.

That's what was inside an 80-gallon plastic drum secured with duct tape and Velcro, left sitting in an abandoned building on Airport Road as recently as last year.

The old Eberline Instruments facility sits behind a fence near where the southwest Santa Fe thoroughfare intersects South Meadows Road. Sweeney Elementary School is less than 500 feet away, and some homes and businesses are even closer.

The global company that owns the land says the radioactive material called americium-241 was further encased inside a smaller steel drum and sealed air-tight before someone finally took it away. But a letter state officials sent to Thermo Fisher Scientific last summer indicates some toxic material may still remain unaccounted for.

What's bad for Santa Fe is that nearly everything the public knows about property's potential contamination has come from the company itself, a Massachusetts-based world manufacturer of laboratory instrumentation and high-tech equipment with a spotty track record for following safety regulations at its Eberline facility.

It's not just 2 grams of americium-241, a radioactive nuclide resulting from decayed isotopes of plutonium forged in nuclear reactors, that was left sitting around. There was a long list of other similarly toxic radioactive materials used when manufacturing was happening there.

Until a decade ago, the Eberline plant made radiation detection equipment that it shipped to nuclear facilities all over the world. The plant's founder, Howard Clayton Eberline, had imagined in the 1950s that Santa Fe would supply the instruments to facilitate the nuclear energy revolution.

The facility's trajectory from the front lines of this industry to a poison-packed shell on the city's edge is as much a story about local industrial decline as it is about a lack of accountability. A review by SFR of half a century's worth of newspaper reporting as well as records from the state Environment Department suggest that Eberline's role as a large employer and the stature of its corporate leadership allowed it to cut corners.

A full account of Eberline's impact on human health has never been conducted. Former workers and those who knew them describe working conditions that could be conducive to radiation poisoning. But it isn't clear whether workers qualify for federal reparations that have been paid to others hurt in the uranium industry, and proving harm would be extremely difficult.

For now, the red building at 5981 Airport Road shrouded by overgrown flora remains empty, lingering like a question about its impact on those who passed through its doors and live near its walls.

Radioactive elements like americium and californium, both of which were handled by workers at Eberline, are carcinogenic. They emit alpha particles which can't penetrate skin but can be inhaled or ingested and lodged in bones and organs, where they destroy nearby cell matter. Americium-241 clings to soil particles and most of it ends up in the dirt, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

Eberline workers also interacted with unstable isotopes of uranium, plutonium, caesium and strontium, which can cause deformities and cancer and remain in the environment for years.

Angelo Gallegos worked at Eberline for about 18 years, until the early 1990s. He advanced from the assembly line to become a technician, where he calibrated company equipment against radioactive material. He wore protective clothing and gloves lined with lead to conduct tests on samples that he raised and lowered from a subterranean room.

"Safety was always an issue, making sure everything was safe around us and not getting over-exposed," says Gallegos, who still lives in Santa Fe. He worked long and grueling hours, but the pay was good.

In the rushed assembly environment, Gallegos says he and his colleagues basically trusted the company to keep them safe, but it appears that wasn't always the case. Assembly line workers would handle radioactive material with their bare skin, he says. He remembers a pregnant woman working there.

Jeff Aquino's mother and father met at Eberline during the Cold War's nuclear buildup. Aquino, a tribal member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, suspects both of his parents developed radiation sickness from their careers in the nuclear industry, which included stints at Los Alamos National Laboratory. His mother is still alive at 91, and recently gave up on trying to receive compensation from the federal government for heart disease she's since developed—possibly, the family believes—from radiation poisoning.

Aquino's father, who died at 56 in 1993 from pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring), was one of Eberline's most famous employees: Juan Aquino's woodcarvings were displayed for a time in the Smithsonian, and his art was nationally renowned. He was an active tribal member of Ohkay Owingeh, serving for a time as its governor and designing the seal that the tribe uses today.

For 15 years he also designed company Christmas cards for Eberline, where he worked until 1977, advancing to the role of electronic technician. In his own short autobiography, Aquino says he "performed touch up work on" Eberline's technical manuals.

Both of Jeff Aquino’s parents worked at the Eberline plant and LANL.

"I remember he told us one time that they had spilled some chemicals there and they didn't have nothing to clean, no protection to clean it up," says Jeff Aquino. "They ended up cleaning it without any protection or safety."

Radiation exposure in occupational environments can lead to the development of pulmonary fibrosis, which results in the same thickening of lung tissue described in Juan Aquino's medical records.

The labs were "the main employer, more or less, that employed a lot of the Natives and Hispanics; a lot of people developed a lot of illness," Jeff Aquino says. "In the end [my father] couldn't even walk 15 feet without having to stop to catch his breath. That's what really kinda had me worried, because I mean, he's only 56 years old."

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act passed in 1990 guarantees payouts for those who worked for or lived near uranium mines or mills in 11 states, including New Mexico, prior to 1971 and developed radiation illness from the government's nuclear program. With each passing year, the few Eberline workers who may qualify for the program gets smaller.

Howard Clayton Eberline, who started off at LANL and was later part of the team that designed and built devices to measure the world's first hydrogen bomb test, hoped that his new private company would become "part of the great adventure that is atomic energy," from prospecting to mining, from power reactors "to miracles yet unseen." When he left the company in 1963, Eberline workers had measured radiation from nuclear explosions at the Nevada nuclear testing site and at the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

By 1982, The Santa Fe New Mexican described Eberline as the city's largest private employer. That gave more clout to its already-powerful corporate leadership. John Dendahl, the late descendant of a prominent local family who would later become chairman of New Mexico's Republican Party, was named president of Eberline Instruments in the 1970s and held prestigious board memberships at the First National Bank of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Opera Foundation, among others.

In those days, the company was able to bully the city into rubber-stamping a plan for expansion by threatening to move its operations to Albuquerque, after officials requested more time to review Eberline's use of radioactive materials. It still laid off dozens of people after it was purchased in 1979 by Thermo Electron Corporation, which would eventually combine with Fisher Scientific in May 2006 to become a multibillion-dollar behemoth. By that September, the global company announced plans to close the Santa Fe plant, terminating 40 manufacturing jobs.

Operations substantially shut down by the next year, but a few workers remained to continue marketing and sales activities. The Santa Fe site also continued to receive millions of dollars' worth of government contracts until 2011.

What's less clear is why radioactive material remained at the facility for several years after the closure of its manufacturing arm. The New Mexico Environment Department has been—in fits and starts—urging proper clean ever since.

After finding in 2007 that Thermo Fisher failed to maintain adequate records of radioactive material going in and out of the Eberline building, New Mexico's Environment Department allowed the company to supply radiation monitors to city government and emergency workers around the state in lieu of a $51,000 fine.

Thermo Fisher provided inventories to the state that reported nearly all radioactive isotopes had been transported out of the facility by June of 2011, but they offer incomplete details about where the materials were removed to, or how. A year later, Thermo Fisher and the New Mexico Environment Department decided that removing a drum of americium from Eberline was a serious matter, and sent an urgent letter requesting the federal Department of Energy's Los Alamos Site Office help remove it.

Internal communications between Thermo Fisher and New Mexico's Radiation Control Bureau, housed in the Environment Department, show that even though the state had accused the company of not following safety regulations in the past, the company was initially allowed to guide the decision for how to remove the americium.

The state would eventually find, again, that Thermo Fisher violated several nuclear regulations. Among other things, the company misrepresented the amount of radioactive nuclides left in the Santa Fe plant after closure.

Thermo Fisher made three proposals for handling the americium in 2013. The company's Radiation Safety Officer Stefan Hrabosky wrote to the bureau that the company formed the ideas in consultation with officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The first was just to leave the radioactive material on Airport Road, which Hrabosky acknowledged "poses the greatest risk of inadvertent exposure to workers and the public."

State officials found that Thermo Fisher misrepresented the amount of radioactive material left at the Eberline plant after closure.

Because the quantity was too high for bulk movement under safety rules, the second was for an outside contractor under LANL supervision to construct a new containment facility on-site at Eberline. That would allow workers to remove americium from the steel container—where it'd been stored since it arrived to Eberline in 2000—and repackage it into at least 200 smaller packages that passed federal safety regulations set by the Department of Transportation. After repackaging, Thermo Fisher would then transport the americium to LANL with an eventual destination of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site near Carlsbad. Hrabosky argued that this option, too, would have presented grave risks to the surrounding environment.

The final option, which Thermo Fisher preferred, was to transport the material along the same route but without those pesky rules. Getting an exemption from federal regulations and placing the plastic drum with the americium inside two additional large steel containers in a truck seemed like the best plan, Hrabosky said.

And that's what the state did. It reports that the Environment Department with law enforcement assistance moved the materials in February 2016, and in a press conference in June of that year, Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn and Gov. Susana Martinez lauded the effort as a good solution.

"While it was stable and secure, there was not an appropriate pathway for ultimately disposing of this material," Flynn was quoted as saying in the Los Alamos Monitor.

Flynn, now the executive director at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, declined to speak with SFR about the removal of americium.

After reviewing the plans to transport the americium out of the area, nuclear energy expert and whistleblower Paul Blanch tells SFR the state's Radiation Control Bureau appears to have defied strict safety standards established by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A plan of action from the Environment Department shows it was planning to transport the americium in a pickup truck with a boxy steel storage frame.

"If they just bypassed all the regulations and took it to Los Alamos, it's not the proper thing to do, but was probably the safest thing to do to get that shit out of Santa Fe," Blanch says.

The reported amount of stored americium was enough to deliver millions of fatal radiation doses via a "dirty bomb."

Victor Dricks, the senior public affairs official for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Region IV, says the NRC was not involved in the incident because New Mexico has an agreement with the federal agency granting the state jurisdiction in licensing and overseeing the use of radioactive materials.

But in 2015, the state found Thermo Fisher to be in violation of several rules after the Environment Department issued the company a license in 2012 to transfer the radionuclides. In addition to alleging that Thermo had labeled containers as containing radioactive material and then claimed they were empty, the Radiation Control Bureau also cross-referenced Federal Express shipping data to find a discrepancy between the amount of californium Thermo Fisher said it disposed of and the amount it actually did dispose. Its inspectors found levels of radiation at Eberline to be higher than what Thermo Fisher had reported.

These photos, obtained through a public records request, show the vehicles the state Environment Department planned to use to move americium out of the Santa Fe city limits in February 2016.

Last February, the Environment Department said Thermo Fisher would not have to admit guilt for the violations in exchange for the company paying for the state to transport the americium to LANL. A settlement between the parties also says there was an unspecified amount of californium left at the facility, and correspondence obtained by SFR in a public records request indicates that the state also inquired last summer about radioactive cobalt and carbon at the site that Thermo Fisher had failed to disclose until after the settlement.

Despite repeated requests, neither officials with Thermo Fisher or with the Environment Department would confirm whether all the known toxic materials have been removed from the building as of press time.

Unless the state says more about what's inside 5981 Airport Road, there's little way of knowing whether anybody should be concerned about what Thermo Fisher left behind.

Angelo Gallegos, the former Eberline technician, was surprised to hear that radioactive material had been there for years after its closure.

"There shouldn't have been anything left in there, really," he says.

Joanna Garcia, who has lived near Eberline for 20 years, says her and her neighbors in the Tiempos Lindos Homeowners Association were never briefed about the state's plans to transport americium last year or whether the site poses a health hazard. Even her cousin, who worked at Eberline for a time, refuses to talk about what went on there.

"We were never educated," Garcia tells SFR. "No one ever discussed the Eberline space. We just know that it was booming at one point, then all of a sudden it was shut down."

For now, the facility is a haunting presence over a suburban landscape, faded from memory if not the environment.

In his small home where multiple family members live, Jeff Aquino says Eberline—now Thermo Fisher—has still not accounted for all his father gave to the company. He points to a black and white photograph on his wall of Juan Aquino presenting a framed piece of tribal artwork to an Eberline executive. Both men in the photo are smiling proudly.

Jeff Aquino asks: "If he would have lived a lot longer, who knows how much more he could have done?"

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.