FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is in talks with the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture and the Center for Applied Energy Research to jointly operate the state's troubled fuel-testing lab.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told a panel of legislators Wednesday that a task force he appointed is exploring possibilities with Scott Smith, UK's agriculture dean, and Mark Crocker, associate director of the research center.
The lab has about $3.1 million in high-tech equipment that the university could use for a multitude of testing purposes and has experts who might be able to take over the testing under contract to the state.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," Comer said.
Smith said, "We are advising and assisting department officials on some of the laboratory and analytical aspects of this issue. There is no definitive agreement as to a resolution at this time."
The Agriculture Department is responsible for testing gasoline pumps for quantity and quality. In 2008, under the direction of former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, the state opened a new fuel and pesticide testing lab. The lab was supposed to become a money-maker for the state, testing as many as 20,000 samples a year, including some from other states.
Comer said that not only did that never happen, it never could have. The lab is capable of testing only about 10 samples a day rather than the 40 to 50 as anticipated, he said. By 2012, the lab had developed a huge backlog of untested samples.
"We were completely in failure to perform tests in timely fashion, leaving the public to a degree unprotected," Comer said.
And Farmer's administration never solicited other states for business, he said.
Consequently, the fuel lab has cost the state about $900,000 a year. Comer said part of that is $200,000 in rent on the building.
"I thought we owned it; we don't," he said.
Comer said part of the trouble is that some Department of Agriculture records appear to have been destroyed or were not kept. Those apparently included records of previous testing.
Since taking over in January, Comer said, he has slashed costs and staff. The lab has dropped all random testing and tests fuel just when there is a complaint, and employees have worked through the backlog.
Still, the lab probably will cost the state about $500,000 this fiscal year, he said. The goal is to find a way to meet the department's testing mandate as cheaply and efficiently as possible, Comer told lawmakers.
"Just to be clear for the consumers, when they see the stickers, 'inspected by KDA,' will that still be true?" asked Rep. Ryan Quarles, R-Georgetown.
Comer said all the state's fuel pumps have been retested this year.
"We will continue to protect the consumers," Comer said. "We're still making sure that they have good fuel, and when they buy a gallon of gas, they're getting a gallon of gas."
The members of the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture welcomed news that a state-financed white elephant might be put to better use.
They also wanted to be sure that no more mistakes are made.
"It's pretty incredible and unbelievable that we've gotten to this point from what we were told from the previous administration," said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. "How did this happen? Why did it go undetected for so long? What can we do to make sure it doesn't happen again?"
Comer, also a Republican and a former representative who sat on the agriculture committee, could not explain Farmer's actions.
"What we all had was a very popular figure at that time come before with an interesting plan," Comer said. "We like big ideas; we want to do things to generate revenue. ... It was an interesting concept delivered from a very popular figure at that time."
Farmer is a former University of Kentucky basketball player who won two terms as agriculture commissioner.
An audit of Farmer's tenure, conducted by State Auditor Adam Edelen's office at the request of Comer this spring, found widespread problems in the department, including the fuel lab. The findings were turned over to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway; the Federal Bureau of Investigation also apparently is investigating.