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Fresno officials propose ordinance around medical labs operating within city limits

News conference Tuesday at Fresno City Hall, where council members Garry Bredefeld, Nelson Esparza and Miguel Arias presented details of the Infectious Disease Lab Ordinance.
Soreath Hok
Fresno councilmembers Garry Bredefeld, Nelson Esparza and Miguel Arias present details of the "Infectious Disease Lab Ordinance" at a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, at Fresno City Hall.

FRESNO, Calif. – Fresno city leaders are proposing changes to the way labs can open and operate within the city. The changes are detailed in a new ordinance going up for a council vote on Thursday.

At a news conference Tuesday at Fresno City Hall, council members Garry Bredefeld, Nelson Esparza and Miguel Arias presented details of the “Infectious Disease Lab Ordinance.” They said it’s aimed at better informing the public about labs handling potentially infectious diseases.

Bredefeld blamed Fresno County leaders for a lack of transparency following the discovery of an illegally stored lab in Reedley last month where infectious diseases were found. County officials knew about the lab months prior, but said they were constrained in releasing information due to federal agency orders to not attract too much attention to the investigation.

The wider public only became fully aware of the investigation in late July.

“Would they have ever told the public? And if so, when? The Department of Public Health has an obligation to inform the public, they're the public health department,” Bredefeld said.

In a statement issued to KVPR, Fresno County pointed out that the lab operated within the City of Fresno for at least two years prior to being found at the Reedley location. The county emphasized that the Fresno County Department of Public Health does not have legal oversight or authority over labs with biological materials.

But council member Miguel Arias said the ordinance is a direct reaction to the county’s slow release of information.

“The City of Fresno residents should be assured that the city council will not allow the county board supervisors’ failure to repeat itself within our own jurisdiction,” he said.

Both Arias and Bredefeld are currently running for a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Arias and fellow council member Luis Chavez are competing for incumbent Sal Quintero’s seat in District 3. Bredefeld is running for the District 2 seat held by incumbent Steve Brandau.

The lab discovered in Reedley – owned by Prestige BioTech, Inc. – originally operated in Fresno before it moved to the location in Reedley late last year. Arias said operators were using a toxic materials permit that can only be issued through the county – and the county has no obligation to inform the city of those permits.

The Fresno ordinance will require new lab operators moving forward to first notify the city’s planning department. Before any conditional use permits can be approved, the public must also be notified. Any residents or businesses located within 1,000 feet of the proposed location will also be alerted and given a chance to provide input.

Council member Nelson Esparza said the ordinance essentially acts as a safety net.

“I want to make clear that our intent with this proposed ordinance is to achieve three goals and that's safety, health, transparency with all of our residents,” he said.

The city will also inspect current labs operating in the city with permits granted by the county to make sure they’re in compliance.

This story was updated with information from county officials.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.