Suspicious lab scrutinized by Fresno and state before moving to Reedley, emails show

A collection of emails detailing Fresno city code enforcement concerns about a suspicious medical research lab indicates that state agencies had been alerted to the facility, and hazardous chemicals stored there, in the fall of 2022, even before the company closed and moved to Reedley in December.

The emails also reveal some gaps – one in communicating those worries up a chain of command within the city’s hierarchy, and another in establishing a collaborative response with county and state regulators.

The emails, compiled through an internal review by Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz, were made public Tuesday by City Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld and Miguel Arias. Their goal: to illustrate the need for more efficient coordination among a cadre of agencies at the local, state and federal level in response to such unregulated and potentially dangerous private laboratories.

Two companies under Chinese ownership, Universal Meditech Inc. and Prestige Biotech Inc., were behind the lab that was first discovered in December 2022 to be operating illegally at a large warehouse in downtown Reedley, sparking an probe that so far has engaged more than a dozen agencies from the city of Reedley up through federal regulatory and investigative agencies.

But before the lab surreptitiously set up shop in Reedley and without securing a business permit, Universal Meditech operated from an industrial building on Fortune Avenue in south Fresno, where it first came to the attention of the city’s code enforcement division after a small fire at the facility in August 2020.

The Fresno lab surfaced again when a code inspection in October 2022 revealed concerns about the company’s operations – including the use and storage of laboratory chemicals, testing on live mice, and more. Emails indicate that Raymond Golden, a member of the city’s code enforcement unit, alerted the Fresno County Department of Environmental Health, the California Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, about the chemicals, contamination and spillage that Golden and other city officials spotted during the Oct. 31 inspection.

“What is not clear from these documents is the degree to which there is ongoing follow-up from these different state agencies,” Bredefeld said at a press conference Tuesday. “What is clear, though, is the need for greater communication and coordination from all government agencies in dealing with this potential threat in the future.”

Bredefeld added that as a result of the review, Janz – who as city attorney oversees Fresno’s code-enforcement unit – “has implemented new policies whereby any discovery of any hazardous materials will be reported immediately to the city attorney and in turn to the mayor and city council, which did not happen in this case.”

Arias concurred. “I just want to thank our code enforcement officers who acted swiftly and thoroughly last year and notified all the respective agencies that they were required to notify,” Arias said at a press conference Tuesday. “Clearly, there’s a gap when the company chooses to move from one place to another. There was a huge, significant lack of follow-through for various agencies, and a significant effort by the company to change its name and hide its intentions by relocating to Reedley.”

“Our code enforcement did a good job of reporting ‘out’ to the agencies that had jurisdiction, but we didn’t report ‘up’ to the city attorney and City Council,” Arias added.

Another step the city is taking is a new ordinance introduced last week by Bredefeld, Arias and Councilmember Nelson Esparza requiring any new “infectious disease labs” seeking to open in Fresno to provide detailed plans to the city’s Planning Department; that city office is then required to notify the city council and the pubic before any permits are issued. The ordinance also imposes misdemeanor criminal penalties if a lab is discovered to be operating outside the limits of hazardous-waste or other permits issued by local, state or federal agencies.

The ordinance will be up for final adoption on Sept. 14. If approved by the City Council, it would take effect in mid-October.

Arias and Bredefeld also called for a close look at the lack of state and federal regulation of private labs, such as Universal Meditech, which operated first in Tulare for several years before moving to Fresno in 2018 and then relocating to Reedley in December.

Bredefeld said he supports bipartisan calls in Congress “for a federal response in dealing with such illegal labs, (and) the state legislature should also act on this threat to our Community and nation.”

“There is a gap for these private labs; there is no agency that is tracking the operation of these facilities from city to city even within the same county,” Arias said. “When you have these shady operators who change their name, change their location, go into facilities that are not permitted for these kind of uses, we need to have a local mechanism or a national mechanism to track and to shut them down.”

Fresno City Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld, left, and Miguel Arias hold a news conference to discuss documents pertaining the Reedley bio lab at Fresno City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.
Fresno City Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld, left, and Miguel Arias hold a news conference to discuss documents pertaining the Reedley bio lab at Fresno City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.