Governor wants to close state's environmental lab

02/10/09 5:46PM By John Dillon
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(Host) The Douglas administration says it can save money by closing the state's environmental laboratory.

But lab officials told lawmakers today that it could eventually cost the state more to use private contractors to do the work.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Douglas Administration hopes to save up to $700,000 by closing the lab. Officials say private contractors can do the work for less.

But lab employees questioned whether the state will get the same quality of service, and if it will save any money at all. Gerald DiVincenzo has been the lab supervisor since 1984.

(DiVincenzo) ``I have not been consulted about DEC's plan to use a private laboratory and I'm afraid that many of the details by adopting this are just not being considered.''

(Dillon) DiVincenzo said lab personnel use state of the art equipment that can measure pollutants in the parts per billion range. He said the lab provides services that cannot be easily matched by private consultants, including advice on environmental sampling and analysis.

(DiVincenzo) ``By using the private sector to meet its laboratory needs, the DEC will spend at least as much money as it does now, and it will get a fraction of the lab's support that it now receives.''

(Dillon) The lab in Waterbury tests hundreds of air samples each year for minute traces of toxic compounds. Lab personnel also track water quality to see if the state's effort to clean up Lake Champlain is working.

Lab employees tried to make the case that the work they do is essential to protect the state's environment. Randy Mercurio is a chemist who looks for harmful pollutants.

(Mercurio) ``I'm sure most of you are familiar with toxic metals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury. These are the types of toxins I look for in samples of air, water, soil and sediment.''

(Dillon) But Mercurio's job was cut, and his last day of work will be the end of February.

Chittenden Senator Ginny Lyons was clearly concerned.

(Lyons) ``I have to say that your testimony has been very compelling, and it's unfortunate the way this has evolved. I think it's important to have the analysis done before decisions are made. And we've heard testimony prior to this time that the analysis was not done adequately.''

(Dillon) But Environmental Conservation Commissioner Laura Pelosi said the state's analysis shows that closing the lab will save $600,000 to $700,000 a year.

(Pelosi) "The lab is a costly component of our business enterprises, so we need to find a more cost-effective way to do it. But it's not in any way a judgment on the staff and these are all very, very hard decisions to make. And all the decisions are difficult choices."

(Dillon) The decision to close the lab may also face a challenge from the state employees union. Union representatives say that state law requires the administration to show it will save 10 percent of the cost of the service if it decides to privatize the work. They question if those savings will be realized.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.



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