ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — On three floors of the 9-year-old Minnesota Department of Health building, large sheets of plastic and floor fans can only begin to capture the damage. The recent cold snap caused the building’s ventilation system to malfunction, resulting in frozen heating coils in the ceilings.
“At one time, we had like 20 of these waterfalls going,” lab director Joanne Bartkus said.
It all began around 3 a.m. on Monday morning when one of six of the building’s air handlers failed, drawing raw sub-zero air into the ventilation system.
Four hours later, as the first employees began showing up for work in the laboratories, they began noticing water spraying down from the ceilings. Workers began scrambling as they tried in vain to cover and move three floors of expensive and sensitive testing equipment.
“Honestly, it was like playing whack-a-mole, because we never knew where the water was going to start coming out next,” Bartkus said.
Tests for everything from newborn screening to drinking water, influenza, rabies and radiologic sampling. However, the worst hit appeared to be the so called “clean room” where a single piece of equipment, known as a mass spectrometer, will cost upwards of $300,000 to replace.
“Until we can get back into the room and establish electricity and get the instruments powered up, we won’t know the extent of the damage,” Bartkus said.
Maintenance crews worked feverishly to track down and contain the damage. They discovered that the cold outside air came into contact with 50 of the building’s 200 heat exchanger coils, which are mounted above the ceilings of each floor. As those water-filled coils froze, they burst the metal piping, allowing water to spray down after the system began thawing.
“What happened was as the building began warming up, and then of course it began to thaw, we found that the coils burst,” Bartkus said.
Insurance may cover a portion of the damage. Meantime, staff members are scrambling to get a wide range of critical testing back on line, to assure public health and safety.
Already, newborn screening is being contracted to another outside laboratory while testing for the influenza virus is already being re-established. Testing for rabies has since been moved to labs at the University of Minnesota.
To make the situation worse, fire sprinklers activated in the clean metals laboratory, spraying tests and equipment with hundreds of gallons of water.
Some of the laboratory space is used by the Department of Agriculture for food safety testing. A department spokesperson says 53 lab personnel work in the affected space and will be called back to work as the building is cleaned and repairs are made.
In addition, 136 health department employees have been impacted by the disaster and will return to work as their labs and equipment are restored.
Fortunately, the infectious disease section of the lab was spared from any significant damage.