4 Investigates: Broken bones and other injuries at the city dump

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Once could be an accident. A few times, perhaps inherent risk. But how many is too many when it comes to serious injuries caused by people falling into the city dump?

Eagle Rock Convenience Center is Albuquerque’s busiest transfer station, with a lot of moving parts, heavy machinery, and some would argue, plenty of room for error.

In 2022, a customer fell into the pit. He lost consciousness but no one noticed. In fact, a loader operator scooped him up and pushed him into debris near the pit ledge.

A harrowing experience Lawrence Gonzales knows too well. 4 Investigates highlighted his story in December last year.

Eugene Gonzales is his son.

“I’ve never seen my dad that bad. That much in pain or anything. The swelling just how banged up he was,” said Eugene Gonzales.

Gonzales was unloading brush in 2019 when he was pulled into Eagle Rock’s surge pit.

A fall, he said, ended up costing him everything. His job, his home, and even the ability to get around.

“It’s tough. It bugs me a lot. Like emotionally,” said Gonzales.

Just like his, the stories told every year since then read like a picture book – gashes, broken ribs, fractured face bones. We found more than a dozen reports, involving different incidents, from Eagle Rock.

“She went down on her hip, then headfirst, and she just laid there,” said Peter Conlin.  “She had a cut on her eye, it was a lot of blood.”

Peter Conlin’s wife Louise fell into the pit in April. Simply put, he said she lost her balance. That fall put her in the hospital for a week, and she spent even longer in rehab.

“It had nothing to do with the pit or the situation there from my perspective,” said Conlin,

Others though do blame the city. We found a half dozen lawsuits filed against the city and the Solid Waste Department. Many blame the pit design and the lack of safety rails – something the city’s two other facilities do have.

Keith Gordon is a local engineer with IKG, LLC. He has extensive expertise in waste processing.

We asked if safety railings are safer.

“I would consider them probably to reduce fall hazards but at the same time presents other, different hazards,” said Gordon.

The city paid Gordon as an expert witness for one of those lawsuits. He submitted a report on Eagle Rock’s safety conditions, hitting on the question about safety rails.

Federal regulators require them for pits deeper than four feet.

“It’s a designer preference but I would start looking at that at over two feet, 24 inches,” said Gordon.

The depth at Eagle Rock is just over two feet, but Gordon believes it’s safe the way it is.

KOB 4 asked Peter Conlin whether safety rails would have prevented Louise Conlin’s accident.

“If there were safety railings there that probably would not have happened. But I don’t know how convenient it is to try to get these boxes up over a railing,” he said.

Some of those lawsuits argue the city should pay more attention to education and training for pit employees.

Specifically in Gonzales’ case, the driver operating the loader failed to honk while scooping the debris, hitting branches, and knocking Gonzales into the pit in 2019.

Personnel records we got from the city after our December report show that the driver “had a history of ‘accidents’ while operating the loader.”

Just months before Gonzales’ accident the driver pulled another customer into the pit. Even though he refused to sign a document outlining safety obligations, the city kept him on the job and behind the wheel when Gonzales went down.

KOB has reached out to the city numerous times to talk about safety as well as the taxpayer dollars going to fight and settle these lawsuits. The solid waste department still refuses to talk to us. A spokesperson sent us this statement:

“The City of Albuquerque Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) continually works to ensure that everyone is safe at our facilities. While we cannot comment on pending litigation, the safety of our employees and customers is our priority.”

Maybe the pit, as it is, is safe enough. But that just means those lawsuits could very well keep coming. For the city, for now, it’s just the price of doing business.