Proposed chem lab closure could hurt UAS recruitment

Eight jobs would be eliminated if governor's proposal wins approval

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

The governor's proposal to close the state chemistry lab in Juneau to save money could make it harder for the University of Alaska Southeast to recruit and keep faculty who conduct research, according to the school's Natural Sciences Department head.

Gov. Frank Murkowski proposed the closure, which he said would save $334,000, in his budget plan early last month.

UAS Natural Sciences Department Chairman Mike Stekoll said three members of his department's faculty conduct grant research at the state chemistry lab.

"We encourage them very much to use the space to do research and help students and put out publications. The research they are doing is published in peer review journals and international journals," Stekoll said Wednesday. "If they lose the space it will be very difficult for them to carry out their research."

Stekoll said if the university doesn't find another space for the scientists to use for their research, they may leave.

"(The research is) a critical part of their job and what they want to do," he said.

Lab director Alan Love said if the lab closes and the scientists have to stop their research, they will have to return grant funds.

University faculty are conducting research on Duck Creek and studying Juneau-area glaciers and water bodies, Stekoll said. The lab is on Bentwood Place, near Industrial Boulevard and the Mendenhall River.

The governor's office says it's feasible to close down the lab because its services are duplicative.

"Most of what they do here in Juneau can be contracted out to the private sector. Things that can't be (contracted out) can be handled by the lab in Palmer," said Murkowski spokesman John Manly.

The state operates a seafood and food safety lab in Palmer.

Kristin Ryan, the director of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Environmental Health, said most of the lab's work involves certifying private labs to do test work and recertifying itself to do test work. Certification entails a continual monitoring of lab activity to ensure that it meets federal standards defined by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the test work that needs to be done is sent out to private labs, Ryan said.

That work includes tests required of public drinking-water systems and environmental tests required after the cleanup of fuel and chemical spills, she said.

"Our lab is basically a subcontractor for private labs. If they can't do the tests, they hire our lab to do it for them," Ryan said.

Ryan said the lab can't go into competition with the private labs.

"When there's a viable for-profit industry out there to provide those services, the state can't be in a position to do it for less," she said.

The lab employs 10 people full time, and the jobs of eight would be eliminated if the cut goes through. Two desk jobs would be spared and those staffers would continue to certify private labs, Ryan said.

A few tests cannot be performed by any other labs. Those have to do with identifying certain organic compounds in drinking water, said former lab director M.J. Pilgrim. The analyses must be done within a certain period of time after the water is collected, and there is no other certified lab in Southeast Alaska that performs those analyses, Pilgrim said.

"The state chemistry lab has always served as an emergency backup laboratory because they are fairly centrally located and frankly on 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week call in case any kind of emergency arises," she said.

The lab closure is subject to the Legislature's approval of Murkowski's budget plan. Right now, it looks as though the lab will close, said state Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat.

"The Finance Committee didn't accept an amendment that I offered that would have at least saved two positions. I'm afraid that the cut is going to happen, so we're going to lose our statewide lab here, which is a real loss to the community and the state," Kerttula said.

Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.



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