Wagoner pushes to move state safety lab from Palmer to Anchorage

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2003

A bipartisan group of Alaska senators wants to move the state's food safety laboratory from Palmer to Anchorage and put it inside the building now occupied by Alaska Seafood International rather than build a whole new laboratory facility.

The move, the senators said, could save much-needed money.

In his proposed capital budget, Gov. Frank Murkowski asked the Legislature to approve a $14.3 million bond bill to cover construction costs for a new seafood lab to replace the existing Seafood and Food Safety Laboratory, which has been operating in its Palmer location for more than 35 years.

The renovated grocery store no longer meets safety code and also is for sale, said Kristen Ryan, director of the Alaska Division of Environmental Health. The state's lease on the building is up in December 2006.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and seven other members of the Senate, including Democrats Kim Elton of Juneau and Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis of Anchorage, say moving the lab to the ASI building could save at least part of the $14.3 million, freeing that money for appropriation elsewhere.

Alaska Seafood International, a seafood processing company that manufactures value-added seafood products, leases space in the 250,000-square-foot Anchorage building from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. ASI does not use all the available space, however.

"The state could realize substantial cost savings by construction of the lab within this existing state-owned facility," Wagoner said in a prepared sponsor statement.

Ryan said, however, that it isn't certain that any money would be saved. In separate appropriations in 1999 and 2001, state lawmakers funneled a total of $385,700 to a new lab project that paid for a feasibility study and a conceptual design. Last year, lawmakers appropriated another $1.3 million to complete the design.

A site near the Anchorage Department of Health and Social Services public health lab in Anchorage was determined to be the best location for the new food safety laboratory. The $14.3 million proposed in the 2004 budget would cover construction.

"The resolution is a little behind the process," Ryan said. "However, we did ask our contractor to go to ASI and evaluate the cost of building (the lab) there. There may be no cost saving."

More complete data should be available by soon, but Ryan said she doesn't think it will predict any real savings by constructing the lab in the ASI building. For one thing, construction costs would be about the same. Plus, the presence of the lab could restrict what occurs in the other parts of the AIDEA building because the lab's sensitive instruments require a vibration-free environment, she said.

Also, Ryan said she isn't sure if having a seafood safety lab in the same building with a seafood processing company -- over which it would have some regulatory authority -- would amount to a conflict of interest.

Nevertheless, the state lawmakers want the idea of utilizing the building space looked at to see if it might save money. Mary Jackson, chief of staff to Wagoner, said they should have a fiscal note completed soon.

The resolution is expected to get a hearing before the Senate State Affairs Committee within two weeks, Jackson said.

The lab does a variety of work for the state. They test water for shellfish growing areas, tests shellfish for paralytic poisoning and other dangers, samples finfish for parasites and has an ongoing fish-monitoring project sampling commercially caught salmon for persistent organic pollutants including mercury. That project should produce its first results by this summer, Ryan said.

The lab also tests dairy products, works with the commercial food industry testing product shelf life and tests cattle and horses for diseases such as tuberculosis.

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