ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - The new Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque cost taxpayers $86 million by the time it was finished two years ago.
Now, thanks to several moderate mistakes and one doozy of a debacle, state officials said the building needs more than $5 million more to fix the problems, and plan to ask state legislators to fund the fixes, according to an investigation by News 13’s Larry Barker.
“When you have to come up with additional dollars to retrofit and redo what should have been done correctly in the first place on a brand-new facility, it is a little bit concerning to taxpayers …” said state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “We just don’t have the resources … to continue to do business the same way we’ve always done it.”
Scientists at the lab investigate everything from flu epidemics to water pollution to animal diseases.
“We work to protect the public from biological and environmental hazards to their health,” said Dr. David Mills, the lab’s director. “The activities here touch the lives of pretty much everybody in the state.”
The main money pit at the new lab – located just off Interstate 25 in central Albuquerque – is hidden away in a specially constructed chamber hidden deep in the bowels of the sophisticated facility.
Known as a Biological Mass Energy Extraction and Recovery device – or an “animal digester” for short – the complex machinery was installed on two floors of the state lab and cost $800,000 to plan, design and construct. It is supposed to safely dispose of animal carcasses that have been infected with anthrax or other infectious diseases, said Jeff Witte, New Mexico secretary of agriculture.
“(It’s) a big, heated pressure-cooker that takes animal parts, carcasses, with a solution, heats it up to a 305-degree temperature and basically digests it down into a sterile slurry,” Witte said.
Despite the machine’s intended purpose and steep pricetag, it stands today as nothing more than a worthless heap of scrap metal. That’s because as equipment was being installed, the manufacturer declared bankruptcy. The state paid consultants another $565,000 to try and make it work, but that, too, was a failure.
“I said, ‘What?’ ” said Witte, who found out about the failed project soon after being named secretary. “I was upset. We had a brand-new building and we had a very critical part of the building that would not work.”
So what can the state do with a $1.3 million animal digester that doesn’t work? Nothing.
State officials are asking the Legislature for another $2.6 million to buy a new one. That request includes $1 million just to tear out the old one. By the time the state gets a new animal digester, taxpayers will have shelled out nearly $4 million.
“I’m angry at what happened and how it happened, but there’s nothing I can do about that today,” Witte said. “My obligation today is to protect the health and welfare of the citizens and the industries and the State of New Mexico. Four million dollars is a hefty pricetag. But the cost of not having it could far exceed that.”
In the meantime, officials have been sending diseased carcasses to Santa Fe to be incinerated. The City of Albuquerque won’t permit the state lab to have an incinerator because it’s located too close to a hospital.
But the problems at the state lab aren’t confined to just the animal digester.
There’s no backup system in place in case one of the exhaust fans in the bio hazard lab goes down. The estimated cost to fix that problem is $800,000, according to the General Services Department.
Also, if there’s a power failure at the building, the backup generator is in place, but someone forgot to install a power filter, so a spike in electricity could damage sensitive instruments. That fix will cost $360,000, according to the request.
Then there’s the floor in the veterinary lab, which is flat when it should have been sloping. That will cost $100,000 to fix, according to the request. In the summer months, the building’s climate controls don’t maintain the humidity within required Environmental Protection Agency regulations, which will cost $100,000 to fix, the request states.
Finally, signs in the building currently consist of pieces of paper taped to doors. It will cost $100,000 to put up permanent signage, the request states.
“So the taxpayers will be paying for it,” said Chuck Gara, director of New Mexico’s Property Control Division. “And I’ve been a taxpayer in the state of New Mexico for 41 years, but I’ve only been at property control less than two. Am I happy about it? No, I’m not. But my job is to take what we have today and try and correct it.”
Sen. Smith, a fiscal conservative, said he feels taxpayers’ pain.
“The public has to be very frustrated because we’ve had a lot of indiscretions in the past that should not have happened but did happen,” he said.
Legislators will consider the lab’s repair $5 million repair tab in the coming weeks. Provided it’s approved, Witte issued the following guarantee.
“We’re going to make sure it’s done right this time,” he said. “That’s my promise and guarantee.”
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