Hard to digest: The fiasco that cost taxpayers millions

A KRQE News 13 Investigation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It was a colossal blunder and a glaring example of government waste and incompetence at its worst.

The snafu is costing taxpayers millions of dollars to correct.

At the heart of this classic case study into reckless spending is a bizarre two story steel contraption few have ever seen and no one has ever seen work. The machine is hidden away under tight security in the basement of the State Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque. You’ll find the massive 10-ton device inside a specially built concrete block chamber.

Even though it looks like something out of this world, it’s not the missing Roswell spacecraft. Technically it’s called a Biological Mass Energy Extraction and Recovery Device. But most people around state government call it, a mistake.

Animal Digester
Biological Mass Energy Extraction and Recovery Device

As we first told you in 2013, the BioMEER device was installed just six years ago. Now a team of demolition experts are ripping it out. Walls are being torn down and concrete is being jack hammered. This is what happens when government officials screw up.

“We would never do that today. We would never do that again,” says General Services Cabinet Secretary Ed Burckle.

To understand what happened you have to go back 10 years. Late in the Richardson administration as planners were designing a new State Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque, someone decided New Mexico needed an ‘animal digester.’ That’s right, an animal digester.

By the numbers:  

Original purchase of Hyrol-Pro BioMEER: $800,000.

Additional money spent trying to make the unit work: $698,353

New PRI Bio tissue digester: $2,309,321

The State Scientific Lab not only deals with human health issues but animal welfare as well. Veterinarians with New Mexico’s Department of Agriculture are charged with investigating and preventing outbreaks of disease that affect the state’s animal population which includes deer, elk, horses, cattle, sheep, prairie dogs, mice, even fish.

Because some illnesses are contagious like Hoof and Mouth disease and Plague, the carcasses of diseased animals must be safely disposed of. In the past, they were incinerated. But air quality regulations today prohibit that option. The answer is an animal digester.

“Essentially what it does is break down animal carcasses into a safe disposable form. A tissue digester is really a green way of disposing of carcasses that may have contracted diseases that that we really don’t want out into the environment,” says Jeff Witte, New Mexico’s Agriculture Department Cabinet Secretary.

A tissue digester uses heat, enzymes and pressure to reduce animal carcasses as big as a cow or a horse to a sterile slurry that can then be safely discarded.

“Let’s say we ended up having a disease outbreak in the state of New Mexico. If we didn’t have one of these we’d be in serious trouble,” Secretary Witte says.

Eight years ago, the state shelled out $800,000 for a Hydrol-Pro BioMEER Animal Digester. The gargantuan two story steel machine was shipped to Albuquerque, installed in the basement of the new State Scientific Lab, plugged in and turned on. It didn’t work. In fact, according to Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, “It never worked.”

By this time the machine’s manufacturer, Hydrol-Pro Technologies, had gone out of business.

According to Secretary Witte, “The state didn’t have a fallback. We didn’t have a warranty. We didn’t have a safeguard on making sure the thing would work with the current contractors. They went bankrupt. There was nobody there to fix it.”

The state hired outside consultants to come in and try to repair the device. However, after spending an additional $698,353 the animal digester just wouldn’t, well, digest.

“There were a couple of things that went wrong here. Number one is that we bought immature technology that had not been proven in the marketplace. We should have never done that,” says General Services Secretary Ed Burckle.

“Another thing that went wrong was that after we were on contract with the original tissue digester manufacturer the state under the previous administration waived the performance and material bonding requirements to ensure that the contractor could perform adequately. That was a major mistake,” Burckle added.

For six years New Mexico’s inoperative animal digester has been sitting in the basement of the State Scientific Lab gathering dust.

So what do you do with an $800,000 stainless steel machine that doesn’t work? Well, you buy another one. First however, you have to rip out the old one.

“The size of the tissue digester required us to remove walls, to remove mechanical and engineering systems down at the Scientific Laboratory to be able to get a crane to come in and remove the old digester. And now we have to put the new equipment in,” says Secretary Burckle.

The cost to taxpayers for tearing out the old equipment, repairing the building and installing a new digester will be a whopping $2.3 million.

According to Ed Burckle, “A lot of that $2.3 million was in what we call the demolition and decommissioning services of the prior tissue digester.”

The nonworking machine was hauled away last month and sold to a scrap metal dealer for about $1500. The new device will be shipped to Albuquerque next month and is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

So is the animal digester debacle over?

“Not until we get the new equipment installed and we can prove it’s operational can we say that we have successfully turned a new chapter. But we have every expectation that that will occur,” says Ed Burckle.

Now, the $2,300,000 question remains, will the new one work?

“I feel 100 percent confident that the new equipment is going to work because we have a (three-year) warranty that says so,”according to Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte.

“One of the key lessons is never award a construction contract without obtaining a performance and material bond. That’s a major lesson learned. Another lesson learned was never buy immature equipment … that has not been proven in the marketplace,” says Secretary Burckle.

Once you add it all up, a working animal digester will have cost New Mexico taxpayers some $4,000,000.

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