Minnesota lab employee misconduct prompts water test review

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Five Minnesota cities' public water supply systems will be re-analyzed after an internal review uncovered evidence of misconduct by a longtime employee in the state's Public Health Laboratory, the Minnesota Department of Health said Tuesday.

The review found the employee was not recalibrating an instrument and avoided quality control steps, calling the reliability of some water testing data into question, the department said.

The employee, who was not identified, was removed from lab duties and put on leave while an outside investigation is conducted. Re-analyzing the data will cost an additional $50,000 to $75,000 and will come out of the public health lab's budget, State Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger told reporters.

"We cannot excuse scientific misconduct," Ehlinger said. Re-analyzing the data will take one or two months.

The Health Department said the internal review indicates only one employee was involved and that there is no immediate public health risk. But the allegedly improper work raises questions about the reliability of some water testing data used by the Health Department's Environmental Health Division and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for projects dating to at least May 2013, the department said.

The initial focus is on 2,200 analyses conducted by the employee between May 2013 and May 2015. That is less than 1 percent of the 325,000 total analyses performed during that time by the employee's section of the lab, the department said.

Top priority will be given to re-analyzing public water systems, Ehlinger said. The group includes systems in Edina, St. Louis Park, Spring Park, Kasota and Brooklyn Center, as well as several private drinking wells in Baytown Township and adjacent areas of Washington County and private wells near the Lindala Sanitary Landfill in Wright County.

The alleged misconduct involved analysis of drinking water and untreated groundwater and surface water. The samples were tested for volatile organic compounds and gasoline and diesel products.

Officials expect the investigation to be done by early October, Ehlinger said. A motive for the alleged misconduct is not known.

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