When you step into the voting booth on Nov. 6 to make your decision on Question 2, you will probably not think about dead cows, spotted wing fruit flies or bed bugs and how they affect you. But that is precisely what Animal and Plant Diagnostic Services does on the Orono campus at the University of Maine. And the employees there will certainly be thinking about you casting your ballot.
In two separate facilities — one in the middle of campus and another on College Avenue — about 15 year-round employees process thousands of animal, plant and insect specimens annually. When farmers, health facilities, business owners, veterinarians and everyday people from across the state send them the samples, they test for health threats such as avian influenza, Lyme disease and salmonella. In animal welfare cases, they test dead animals in order to determine cause of death.
Their overall aim is to protect you and the economy — which has an agricultural base in the potato, blueberry and sweet corn industries — from new and emerging pests, infectious diseases and invasive species. We encourage you to support them.
As part of Question 2, the University of Maine System is requesting $7.8 million in bond money in order to combine the facilities’ operations into one laboratory that has quarantine capability. The current facilities are not biosecure, and the university system wants to be able to prevent the spread of potentially dangerous and infectious matter. Approval of the ballot measure would also fund capital improvements at the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
John Rebar, director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said $5.4 million would be used to construct the diagnostic building; $2.1 million would pay for equipment. The current facilities were built in the 1940s and 1970s and currently can’t accept anything that weighs more than 200 pounds — a horse can weigh up to 1,500 pounds — because it won’t fit in the lab.
The facilities also have no disposal system for those specimens, and Rebar said he worries people won’t bring in infectious animals because they don’t want to pay disposal fees. The new lab would have an alkaline digester, which breaks down animal tissues into their basic building blocks, so they can be liquefied and flushed into the regular sewer system. The lab would be on the edge of campus — accessible but away from heavy traffic. And it would be large enough to accommodate the lab’s work.
Demand is growing. Animal and Plant Diagnostic Services received 5,463 samples from 974 customers in 2008, according to University of Maine Cooperative Extension records. In 2011 it received 12,628 samples from 1,034 customers.
It’s important for Mainers to invest in a facility that will be able to adequately respond to potential threats. It’s appropriate for the building to be paid for with bond money because it will contribute to protecting a variety of statewide interests. The measure was supported by the Legislature and should be supported by voters.