New Mexico still without working ’tissue digester’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico officials are considering whether to fix or replace a hulking machine that’s supposed to safely grind up and sterilize disease-infected animal carcasses.

The two-story tissue digester has already cost the state nearly $1.4 million, and it still doesn’t work three years after it was installed. The state is now paying a consultant $42,000 to determine whether it can be fixed.

“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,” General Services Department spokesman Tim Korte told the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/1cQJCbT).

The $800,000 tissue digester has a troubled and expensive past.

The machine was installed in the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Diagnostic Services lab in Albuquerque in 2010. After the Florida-based designer filed for bankruptcy and failed to finish the job, the state hired an Illinois company. Engineers were unable to make it work despite a $565,000 effort.

In its last regular session, the Legislature earmarked $2.8 million to remove the non-working digester and to buy and install a new one. No replacement has been ordered.

The tissue digester is supposed to work like a large pressure cooker, using heat, pressure and chemicals to reduce animal tissue to a sterile slurry that’s safe for disposal. It was designed to handle about 4,000 pounds of tissue during an eight- to 12-hour cycle and destroy 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.

Agriculture Department officials say the digester would act 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,” said Katie Goetz, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.

Last year, the Veterinary Diagnostic Services lab safely disposed of about 47,600 pounds of animal tissue, 400 pounds of which had the potential to infect humans.

Currently, the lab ships small animal carcasses to two crematoriums in Albuquerque for disposal. It ships larger animals to the Department of Game and Fish incinerator in Santa Fe.

Korte, of the General Services Department, said when the digester was purchased, there were only two companies manufacturing the systems. Now, there are several companies making digesters that have overcome early design flaws.

Lab employees are doing research to determine which unit would best fit the state’s needs, Korte said.

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

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