Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dangerous Biological Testing Lab in Connecticut

New Public Health Laboratory Approved By Bond Commission; Union Dispute Over Who Will Build It
By Christopher Keating on April 7, 2010 12:34 PM
In a continuing political battle, the State Bond Commission approved a new, $70 million public health laboratory that has drawn sharp opposition from the surrounding Rocky Hill neighbors.
The 7 to 3 vote Wednesday came after a similar vote last month had failed on a 5 - 5 tie as all five Democrats on the commission banded together after saying that the neighbors had not had enough time to analyze the plans.
The state-of-the-art facility would allow for testing for anthrax and other biohazardous materials, which has raised fears among the neighbors. The lab will be a replacement for the deteriorating, 45-year-old lab in Hartford, which is within walking distance of the state Capitol, the Bushnell theatre, the state office building on Capitol Avenue, and Bushnell Park. Thousands of people walk and work near the currrent laboratory on a daily basis, and many are not aware of its location in a non-descript building near the state DEP headquarters.
Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell said previously that many of the concerns about the facility were actually related to a union battle over whether non-union contractors would be building the $70 million complex. One of the chief opponents of the laboratory is Shaun Cashman, a high-ranking union official who once served as the state labor commissioner under then-Gov. John G. Rowland.
State officials were surprised when Cashman recently showed up at a private meeting about the laboratory plans with two Democrats - Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Rep. Tony Guerrera of Rocky Hill. Cashman attended the bond commission meeting Wednesday and often looked back at Doyle and Guerrera, who were standing in the back of the room.
When asked after the vote whether the dispute is over union issues, Cashman said, "I'm just looking for safety. I have no other issue beyond that.''
He then walked away from a reporter.
More than 30 different contractors are recommended to work on the project, including about a dozen with contracts for at least $1 million. Some of the biggest contractors on the list are Tucker Mechanical, Pioneer Valley Concrete, United Steel, S. G. Milazzo & Co., Ductco Inc., Gibson Associates, Electrical Contractors Inc., and Simscroft-Echo Farms, Inc. of Simsbury. Other contractors are Century Drywall Inc., WDJ Construction, CT Mason Contractors Inc., Gold Seal Roofing & Sheetmetal Inc., and Suntech of CT, Inc.
The three Democrats who voted against the laboratory were Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, state Comptroller Nancy Wyman and state Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford. Sen. Eileen Daily, a moderate Democrat and key swing voter on the bond commission, changed her vote from last month and supported the laboratory on Wednesday. She told Capitol Watch that her concerns had been answered.
After the original vote last month, Rell told reporters that she was angry and frustrated by the process. She said the plans had been in the works for five years and were well known to town officials in Rocky Hill.
Rell's aides distributed a timeline and lengthy details about the plan to show that Rocky Hill officials had been aware of the proposal for years.
The lab is a critical component of the state's public health mission. Scientists at the current lab test for West Nile virus, childhood lead poisoning, rabies, and drinking water contamination, among other public health concerns.
The issue over the Rocky Hill location flared up when a group known as Construction Workers For A Safe Environment started distributing fliers to Rocky Hill residents with the statement that the materials at the new lab "may cause serious or potentially lethal disease as a result of exposure by the inhalation route."
Stanley Einhorn, a Rocky Hill resident who found a flier on his doorstep last week, said last month that everyone on his street got the flier, which says the Rocky Hill laboratory would be at the same level as the notorious laboratory at Plum Island, N.Y., in Long Island Sound. But Rocky Hill's, like the lab it would replace, would be a Level 3 laboratory, while Plum Island is a Level 4 facility.
"It's not as bad as Plum Island, but there are contagious things there," Einhorn said. "I definitely think it's a bad idea. ... There's a lot of potential problems."
Doyle, the state senator who sought a postponement of the bond commission vote, said last month that the brochure was "inflammatory" and "dead wrong" in certain aspects regarding the state's plans.
"This facility has no live animals. It's not like they're testing live animals like at Plum Island," Doyle said. "There's a lot of misstatements in here. You can't get near Plum Island. There's 100 percent security."
Doyle rejected the notion that the dispute was about union construction jobs, saying that the issue never came up during the one-hour meeting with public health commissioner Robert Galvin and other state health department officials at the state Capitol complex.
"I don't know any of those [union] issues because Cashman didn't tell me any of that," Doyle said last month. "The motives of Cashman are irrelevant. ... In the meeting, there was nothing about unions. It was all science."
The new laboratory, which is scheduled to be built on 22 acres near the State Veterans Home and across the street from Dinosaur State Park, would replace the current lab at 10 Clinton St. in a densely packed, congested area of downtown Hartford.
Because of the weak economy and the heavy competition among contractors for construction jobs, the state had received a bid that was $12 million less than expected.
Galvin, the public health commissioner, has described the current lab in Hartford as antiquated and said its plumbing, heating and air-conditioning systems are deficient. On hot days in the summer, staff members must put containers of ice on top of specimen coolers to ensure that the samples are kept cold enough, he said.
Galvin told the bond commission last month that the lab has no experimental animals and that it's never had trouble containing organisms it is testing.
A construction contractor has offered a price that would cut $12 million off the overall cost, and that offer expires April 15, Galvin said.

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