The state poultry lab in Gainesville. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Problems could cost taxpayers $4 million to fix Georgia Poultry Lab

Problems in a biosafety facility built to handle viruses such as avian influenza at the state’s 4-year-old poultry lab in Gainesville may cost taxpayers $4 million to fix.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said that there were design flaws in the facility. Workers in the biosafety lab were pulled from the room last spring, with some complaining of headaches, officials said.

“We are not going to put our employees in danger,” Black said Wednesday at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

The $14 million state poultry lab — which made news in 2012 because then-Gov. Nathan Deal and a panel of leaders decided to build it on land tied to the governor’s campaign chairman — has been open since January 2015, and Black said it’s had problems for a while.

“It’s the most aggravating problem when we have to wait, wait, wait and when we get something (done), we have problem after problem after problem,” Black told lawmakers. “The only reason we discovered this $4 million problem is because we had roof leaks that would not stop.”

State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned why no one is being prosecuted or forced to pay for the problem.

“Somebody needs to be accountable for $14 million in taxpayer money,” Williams said. “I am puzzled why we have so many problems with a messed-up building.”

Black told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that pressure in the biosafety level 3 lab clean room — where staffers could handle things such as avian influenza or bird flu cases — caused seals to blow on windows. Last spring, he said, workers started noticing loud vibrations in the room. Wanting to avoid “an occupational hazard” for employees, the biosafety lab was closed.

Black said the public was in no danger, and that work on viruses such as avian influenza can be done at other facilities in Georgia if necessary.

“We are not worried about being able to handle a threat,” Black said. “The work is being done.”

Biosafety labs are designed to isolate dangerous biological agents in an enclosed facility.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the contractors of the facility have worked to fix problems at the poultry lab, such as roof leaks. The architectural firm that designed the lab filed for bankrupcy in 2013, state officials said.

“Otherwise, it’s a state-of-the-art facility,” England said. “But we shouldn’t have these kind of issues.”

Black said he has talked to the Attorney General’s Office to see whether the state has any recourse. But in the meantime, Black said he had to ask the General Assembly for an extra $4 million to fix the problem. Black said he told Gov. Brian Kemp about the problem recently.

That the lab was built in Gainesville — Deal’s hometown — wasn’t a surprise since the city bills itself the Poultry Capital of the World because of the large concentration of chicken processing plants located there. The lab replaced another facility in Hall County that was built in 1962 and was in serious need of repair.

In 2012, the Deal-led State Properties Commission decided to build the lab in a new industrial park development. His campaign chairman, Philip Wilheit, a major donor to Deal’s political campaigns whom the governor appointed to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, was a partner in the development. The deal hinged on the Hall County Commission agreeing to put up about $10 million to build roads and put in sewer and other infrastructure on the land. The state was the first buyer of property in the development.

Other businesses have since flocked to the site.

Kemp didn’t include the $4 million for repairs in his proposed state budget for the coming year, so England said legislators will look into finding money to add to the spending plan.

“We spend more than $1 billion a year on construction,” England said. “Once in a blue moon, you’re going to have one that goes sideways, goes bad.”

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