UVic Fish Lab Employees Raised Many Alarms
At Microtek, a two-year history of concerns expressed. Second in a three-part special report.
The spill of untreated, disease-laced waste water from a University of Victoria laboratory into the Capital Regional District's sewage system was only the latest problem related to Microtek Research and Development Ltd.'s use of the school's facilities.
Documents obtained by The Tyee show that in the two years before the spill of untreated water from the lab into city sewerage, the three staff at the aquatic research facility were having trouble getting Microtek to follow the university's standard operating procedures and animal care regulations. But when they asked UVic administrators to back them up, they were told to go easy on the company.
Two of the staff members who were involved, Mike James and Simon Grant, refused to be interviewed. A source familiar with what's happening at the facility said the pair have become frustrated with how the university hampers them from doing their jobs and have asked to be laid-off. At the start of July they remained employees of the university, but were not in the office.
The third employee in the facility, Brian Ringwood, said his co-workers are "disgruntled" but he believes everything is running fine. "I work here," he said. "I don't have any problems with what I do. I sleep at night, you know what I mean."
Asked about some of the problems documented over the past couple years with Microtek, he said animal care isn't his area. "I totally didn't get involved with that. I didn't get involved in their fight," he said. "I just put my head down and do my job. That's the way I look at it." Seeing things differently from his co-workers did make life difficult, he acknowledged. "I've been stuck in the middle here. It's not a comfortable place to be."
Microtek's vice-president of operations, Steve Carlos, said the company has used the facility at UVic for at least 15 years and has had "amicable and agreeable relationships with various managers of the facility until recently." The company does not "purposely or knowingly" violate the operating procedures and regulations governing the facility.
Calros suggested allegations of violations "appear to be both vindictive and personal" and noted the company is inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and UVic's aquatic facility staff.
A researcher who uses the facility declined to be interviewed, but said there have been ongoing problems. Asked about the roles of James and Grant, the researcher said, "Those guys are great. They're not the problem."
On Aug. 14, 2007, James wrote in an e-mail: "This fight is a reoccurring theme that frankly is getting old. We should not have to spend hours/days arguing over SOP's that are in place or simple policies that we need to institute. The amount of time that we spend on this is astronomical."
He suggested the company was getting special treatment. "The things that Microtek/Norm [Johnson] get away with would not fly with the other [researchers] that use this facility or with the [Canadian Council on Animal Care]. We have an entire list of protocols not being followed."
But when James took concerns to the university's Animal Care Committee, he found anything related to Microtek was kept out of the publicly available meeting minutes. "Mike James, in reviewing ACC meeting minutes, noted that Microtek International's continued violation of SOP's, are suppressed from the public record," the document said. "These minutes fail to reflect Aquatics concerns stemming back to October 2006."
Those concerns included a mass kill of an estimated 1,000 salmon in August 2006 when the fish were flushed from Microtek tanks into the pumps for the aquatics facility recirculation system.
They also included worries about how Microtek employees kill the fish when they are done experimenting on them. Guidelines for university researchers set by the Canadian Council on Animal Care prohibit decapitating animals when researchers are finished with them.
However, according to a document prepared for UVic by staff in the aquatic facility, decapitating fish was standard procedure. "Simon Grant observed Microtek International employee, Norman Johnson, 'hand-squishing' slow swimmers -- takes fish-in-hand and flicks the head off of the fish," it said. "This violation continues to present day."
Failure to comply
There were also problems with how Microtek added chemicals to tanks. A Dece. 3, 2007 non-compliance report said a Microtek employee, Norman Johnson, had refused since October 2006 to follow the standard procedures for treating tanks. Nor was he keeping the facility managers informed when he was treating the water, making it hard for them to manage the facility for all users.
Microtek's Johnson responded saying meeting the requirements would just mean extra work for himself with little benefit.
Nor did Johnson follow rules that required people working with animals to wear gloves. He got into a confrontation with Simon Grant over the issue. As Johnson put it to Ralph Scheurle in a January 10, 2008 e-mail, "I told him [Grant] that this job would be easy if he stopped acting like a jerk."
Another day, James noted that Johnson was moving fish from the pathology lab, where diseased fish are kept, into outdoor tanks that should not have been contaminated. He wrote an e-mail on Nov. 1, 2007 to Microtek's Steve Carlos: "As far as I am concerned this is a major breach of Bio security. The pathology labs are a one-way trip and have always been that way. I have to assume that whatever is in those labs is now in the recirculation system."
James consulted with Michele Martin, a veterinarian at UVic and the B.C. Cancer Agency. "This should not occur," she wrote. "The animals that have been inside the laboratory where the pathogens have been tested would be considered potentially exposed, regardless of their 'naive/control' status (cross-contamination risk), particularly in the movement process. Furthermore, by moving them back into the recirc system you would be potentially exposing other animals to this risk."
She also noted using fish for more than one study might affect Microtek's results. "I'm not sure that reusing control animals would be considered a sound research practice," she wrote. "However it is possible in some settings this may be done. I know it's certainly not the practice in mammalian species."
Microtek vice president Carlos explained in an e-mail that re-using fish was a matter of thrift. Atlantic salmon are difficult to get, he said, and the company could not afford to "waste" them.
James said in his e-mail to Carlos that he was considering contacting the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which regulates food safety. If CFIA's approvals of food grown using Microtek products were based on faulty science or poor testing, it would be significant to the fish farmers who buy the drugs and the people who buy fish from the farms.
Carlos wrote James an angry message on Nov. 3, 2007. "To contact CFIA directly only indicates that you are adamant of destroying Mikroteks [sic] reputation and financial cash flow," he said. "If this irresponsible tactic of yours leads to an inquiry and suspension of our product licenses then we will have to look for compensation."
As the relationship between the facility managers and the company deteriorated, James' boss Ralph Scheurle sent a message to his boss, Rachael Scarth. The problem, he said, was Microtek's failure to follow UVic's standard operating procedures, or SOPs. James wanted the university to support him.
"After his four unsuccesful attempts to have Microtek's Norman follow the UVic's SOP on tank treatments, he has officially requested that the Office of Research Services back him up and enforce this requests [sic] to follow the UVic SOP's and support him as coordinator of the Aquatic Unit," Scheurle said in the Nov. 7 message.
At that point Scheurle had already checked with Microtek's main employee at the facility and could outline his position. "Basically Norman is saying that (Microtek) has its way of doing tank treatments and they will ignore Mike's requests and continue doing them their way," he said.
"The bottom line is Mike need's [sic] our support or he will abandon his efforts on enforcing UVic SOP's [sic] and takes no responsibility of any consequences from not meeting CCAC guidelines etc. His professional abilities have been questioned by Microtek and he sees this as a very serious matter."
Tone changed say employees
The university would have been entirely within its rights to enforce the guidelines. The current facilities agreement contract between Microtek, Prof. William Kay and UVic, covering Nov. 1, 2007 to Oct. 31, 2009, says the company will follow all relevant policies and regulations.
"Microtek warrants it will follow Occupational Health and Safety policies, CCAC regulations and any other Provincial/Federal regulations that the University would be bound by related to the operation of the University Aquatics Research Facility," it said. "Microtek warrants that it will follow all University Animal Care Services policies and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Any deviation from such procedures must first be approved by the UVic Animal Care Committee by application."
The agreement also said, "Microtek will follow all current guidelines in regards to biosecurity and biohazard issues related to the operation of the University Aquatics Research Facility." And, later, "Microtek agrees to observe the University's safety and other rules when on University property."
The contract recognizes the role James should play in that as the manager of the facility, and allowed that the university would make a "daily examination of the animals housed within the Aquatics Research Facility."
Looking after the fish is a shared responsibility between the company and the university, it said. "The parties agree to work together to ensure the administration of adequate health care of the animals."
Though Scheurle had asked Scarth in November 2007 to back up James, by December the tone had changed, according to a complaint submitted to the university by James and Grant. In the document, they say Scheurle told his staff to "back off on Microtek."
Scarth could not be contacted. In early July her voice message said she would be away until July 14.
The dean of science, Tom Pedersen, said he doesn't follow the details of what's happening at the facility and he's not responsible for it. He signed the facility agreement with Microtek on behalf of the university, but he said it's not his job to enforce the contract's terms. "Afraid I can't offer any more there." He suggested talking to Richard Keeler, UVic's associate vice president of research.
Keeler's name appears frequently in the documents tracing the problems at the lab, and he also signed contracts with Microtek for the university. An assistant said he is on holiday until August and is unavailable.
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