Sarbanes wants U.S. to improve lab maintenance

December 18, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Federal labs in Maryland and around the nation are suffering from leaky roofs and other physical deterioration that threaten to undermine their scientific work, warned Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who has called for an investigation by the General Accounting Office.

"I am concerned about what appears to be a pattern of insufficient maintenance at federal labs that is undermining their ability to carry out scientific missions," the Maryland Democrat said Wednesday.

Mr. Sarbanes said the deteriorating labs include the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, which employs some 1,800 workers and serves as a national reference and measurement lab for the physical and engineering sciences. A survey found that some 42 percent of the Gaithersburg lab space failed to meet required scientific standards. There are also safety problems, including faulty smoke detectors and sprinkler

systems and structural deterioration, said Debra Silimeo, press secretary for the Joint Economic Committee, chaired by Mr. Sarbanes.

Some $105 million has been set aside this year to begin correcting the problems at the Gaithersburg facilities, said Ms. Silimeo. Those labs and others in Boulder, Colo., are between 25 and 40 years old.

Other labs in Maryland that are expected to be reviewed include the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Officials at the Beltsville center told Senate staffers that the facility, between 50 and 60 years old, has deteriorated to the point where the conditions are hampering the quality of the science.

As a result of federal cutbacks in the 1980s, "some of the conditions were exacerbated," Ms. Silimeo said.

Labs outside the state that are badly deteriorated include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration labs in North Carolina and Texas. They were found to be so unsafe that they had to be evacuated until structural repairs could be made.

A leak at one Environmental Protection Agency lab, meanwhile, damaged $750,000 worth of research equipment.

Mr. Sarbanes asked the GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, to determine the extent of deterioration at federal labs, the cost of fixing them and the effect of inadequate facilities on federal research efforts.

A report is expected by May 1993, he said.

A Joint Economic Committee analysis estimated that it would cost between $3 billion and $5 billion to work through the backlog of maintenance, repairs and facilities at federal research labs, he said.

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