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West Virginia’s state-owned laboratories are housed in buildings that are too small and too old, complicating some agencies’ ability to meet the demand of their services, according to a report from the state’s legislative auditor that was presented to lawmakers on Tuesday.

Most of these buildings — which include former schools and business warehouses — were not designed to be laboratories. In some instances, the services now housed within them are causing more wear to the buildings due to chemical usage. There have been reports of theft and other breaches due to limited security. Nearly all laboratories are too small to properly accommodate the needs of the agencies within them, according to the report.

“Each of the State’s lab testing programs do not have sufficient lab space in their current facilities, and no facility upgrades or remodeling have occurred to maintain modern standards,” the report read. “The lack of space and upgrades has made it difficult to maintain scientific standards under each laboratory’s accreditation standards, which in turn, puts at risk current lab testing programs, and precludes the State from conducting new lab testing programs.”

The facilities and agencies toured by members of the auditor’s office and analyzed in the report included:

  • The Department of Agriculture’s laboratories at the Gus Douglass Agricultural Center in Guthrie.
  • The Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Laboratory.
  • The Bureau of Public Health’s Public Health Laboratory in South Charleston and the Newborn Screening Laboratory at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park.
  • The Division of Labor’s Weights and Measure Laboratory in St. Albans.
  • The State Police Forensic Laboratory in South Charleston.
  • The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s autopsy suite and laboratory in Charleston.
  • The Bureau of Public Health’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory in Big Chimney.

In an interim committee presentation Tuesday, Keith Brown, a senior research analyst with the Legislative Auditor’s office, said the most pressing issues exist for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The agency has never been accredited, in large part due to the limitations present in its current facilities. Staffing issues persist because there is not enough space to employ more workers.

The autopsy suite currently houses two permanent exam tables and one mobile. Matt Izzo, chief administrator for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said at least nine permanent exam tables — and thousands more square footage — would be needed to meet standards for accreditation.

Upgrading and expanding lab space would allow the agency to perform more autopsies, quicker and would improve turn-around time for death investigations and death certificates, Izzo said.

“Our current physical plant is grossly inadequate for our caseload and the depth of services we provide,” Izzo said. “My sincere hope is that this committee and the Legislature as a whole will strongly consider the findings in the PERD audit.”

Auditors presented legislators with three options for the future of state-run laboratories: Build separate, upgraded facilities for each lab; “co-locate” and combine the labs to operate in vacant structures at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston, and upgrade those that cannot be accommodated there or build one laboratory facility for all agencies to share.

Option one and option three could cost between $170 million to $226 million. Option two — potentially the most feasible of the three, according to the auditor’s report — could cost between $105 million and $160 million, depending on the size of the facilities and the needs of the agencies.

The report said no decisions should be made until an independent architectural study is ordered by the Legislature.

State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt warned lawmakers against potential risks of combining laboratory settings.

Different agencies, he said, have different biological security levels. Agriculture, for instance, has a security level of three. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is a two.

He said there are potential risks to be had by placing those programs — along with programs from the Department of Health and Human Resources, which may study different diseases and other human-focused issues — alongside each other.

“I’m all about making sure the citizens of West Virginia are safe — that’s the primary importance,” Leonhardt said. “I don’t really think we want to combine the animal labs and the human labs ... we can’t share everything.”

Some diseases studied on the animal side “are communicable for humans,” he continued. He urged lawmakers to think of potential risks that could pose if there were a cross-contamination, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which developing studies suggest transferred from animals to humans.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said that under no circumstances would labs be set up to use the same materials or equipment, or to allow for any contamination. Instead, if they were located in the same general facility — such as the Tech Park — state agencies could collaborate more on issues and share expertise between them that could otherwise take days or weeks to coordinate.

“I never once envisioned the use of work facilities to where they’re sharing equipment — that’s not the case at all — but they can share resources,” Blair said. “One agency would be able to talk to another in quick fashion. We should be able to do that.”

Leonhardt said the Department of Agriculture previously hired an architectural and site selection firm to look at potential options for the agency’s labs. He said that report was returned saying “the best fit for the government” would be “for the labs to be rebuilt” where they currently stand in Guthrie.

Leonhardt would be open to another study, he said, but asked lawmakers how many studies would be performed before any action is taken for the state-owned laboratories.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, concurred that many studies had been widely performed. His first job out of college was at a Department of Agriculture lab, Hanshaw said. It’s been well known for decades that the facilities are in dire need of upgrades.

“We do have a bit of study paralysis here. We’ve studied this and studied this and then studied the studies,” Hanshaw said. “We need to take action.”

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or caity.coyne@hdmediallc.com. Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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