Eight months after lawmakers approved spending $2.8 million to replace a hulking machine that was supposed to safely grind up and sterilize disease-infected animal carcasses, the two-story “tissue digester” – which has already cost the state $1.4 million – still doesn’t work, and no replacement has been ordered.
Instead, state officials are paying a consultant $42,000 to determine whether the two-story machine, first installed in the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Diagnostic Services Laboratory in 2010, can be fixed.
Later that year the state hired an Illinois-based company to finish installing the $800,000 machine, but engineers were unable to make it work. That effort cost the state $565,000.
“We are currently working with a consultant to determine if the existing tissue digester can be repaired,” Tim Korte, spokesman for the state General Services Department, said last week. “It probably won’t be able to be fixed, but given the price to purchase a new one, the thinking is it’s the prudent thing to do.”
The tissue digester has a troubled, and expensive, past.
Katie Goetz, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said a tissue digester works like a large pressure cooker that uses heat, pressure and chemicals to reduce animal tissue to a sterile slurry that is safe for disposal.
But the digester the state bought and had installed at the Tri-Services Laboratory at 1101 Camino de Salud NE has never worked, and it sits unused in the building that also houses the state Health Department’s Scientific Laboratory Division and the state Office of the Medical Investigator.
Agriculture Department officials say the tissue digester acts as an insurance policy in case of an animal disease outbreak. “In a state with anthrax, plague, chronic wasting disease, tularemia, etc. … the cost of not having a proper method of disposal would far exceed the investment in human and animal health we’re making here,” Goetz said.
In January 2008, the state contracted with Florida-based Hydrol-Pro Technologies Inc. to plan, design and install the digester, Korte said last year. But Hydrol-Pro, which was not bonded, filed for bankruptcy before the installation was finished.
The state then hired Illinois-based Progressive Recovery Inc. to complete the installation, but once the digester was installed, it didn’t work as designed, Korte said.
In its regular session earlier this year, the Legislature earmarked $2.8 million to remove the non-working digester and to buy and install a new one – neither of which has happened.
Agriculture spokeswoman Goetz said the digester was supposed to handle about 4,000 pounds of tissue during an eight- to 12-hour cycle and destroy prions – the infectious agents responsible for diseases that destroy the nervous system, such as anthrax and plague.
The digester is needed because the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County don’t allow incinerators, and a digester would eliminate the need to transport infected carcasses around the state.
Last year, the lab safely disposed of about 47,600 pounds of animal tissue, 400 pounds of which were zoonotic in nature, meaning they had the potential to infect humans. The zoonotic cases included several cases of plague and tularemia, and one case of chronic wasting disease, Goetz said.
If the prolonged drought eases, more disposals could be needed as ranchers rebuild their herds.
Currently, the Veterinary Diagnostic Services lab ships small animal carcasses to two crematoriums in Albuquerque for disposal, and it ships larger animals to the Department of Game & Fish incinerator in Santa Fe.
When the original tissue digester was purchased, Korte said, there were only two companies manufacturing the systems. Now, there are several companies making digesters that have overcome the early digesters’ design flaws.
Meanwhile, he said, lab employees are researching various models and manufacturers of tissue digesters to determine which unit might best fit the state’s needs.
Until a new digester is bought, installed, tested and proven to work, Veterinary Diagnostic Services will continue shipping infected carcasses to crematoriums in Albuquerque or to the Game and Fish incinerator in Santa Fe.