Suspicions were raised about the operations of a Chinese-linked biolab in central California far earlier than previously known, according to a review of hundreds of internal emails, documents and photographs obtained by Fox News.
Two California state agencies called on by the city of Fresno to intervene in the matter tell Fox they had no authority to get involved but the delay of local and state officials to take action in fall 2022 appears to have allowed lab workers to empty a warehouse full of dangerous biological agents, lab mice, chemicals and equipment.
A trove of emails obtained through a public records request with the city of Fresno showed one official had been so concerned by Universal Meditech Inc.’s operations he filed urgent pleas with California’s environmental and toxic substance agencies for assistance in possibly shutting down the biolab before it could relocate.
When no one stepped up to stop them, UMI quietly moved last year into a previously vacant warehouse in Reedley about 20 miles away.
Reedley officials were unaware of the move.
Once discovered, the unpermitted and unlicensed lab containing numerous deadly infectious agents wasn’t shut down until March of this year.
That discovery and subsequent media attention has prompted numerous investigations and raised questions over UMI’s true intentions.
The company said it was making pregnancy and COVID-19 tests but local officials then and now aren’t clear on why UMI also possessed hundreds of lab mice and cultures of malaria, dengue fever, HIV and tuberculosis.
“Something is off here,” then-Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis said in an email in August 2022 about the leased UMI warehouse on Fortune Avenue. Two years earlier, 39 Fresno firefighters responded to an overnight fire at a workstation in the warehouse. Follow-up investigations concluded there were numerous safety violations, including non-permitted electrical work. The Donis email asked for further investigation from within her department and the city’s code enforcement division.
“The owners are also concerned that the smell in this building could be the result of animal testing,” Donis wrote.
Fire inspector Brennen Henry reported back that his findings corroborated the chief’s suspicions.
“According to the tenant, they are a medical testing lab…. However, based upon the chemicals and machinery, I don’t believe this is the full picture.” Henry also flagged his concern that “the hazardous materials spills/waste are beyond our capabilities.”
City code enforcement officer Raymond Golden was assigned the case in October and in the weeks that followed made numerous trips to the warehouse.
His inspections concluded that many of the previously known violations remained and that “the business is involved with medical testing using lab animals…. [and] storing various chemicals and hazardous materials” in violation of city zoning laws.
In the days that followed, Golden sent numerous emails expressing grave concern about the facility.
“Time is of the essence,” he wrote on Nov. 2.
“We are concerned that they may have introduced products that are not intended for disposal in our sewage system,” Golden told other city workers.
On Nov. 3, Golden frustratingly told a fellow investigator from the Fresno County Department of Public Health that “enforcement is delayed due to lack of company representative present,” the documents showed.
That same day Golden asked for help from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) because “they have law enforcement powers and are able to supersede a need for a warrant.”
In his appeal to the DTSC, Golden said the UMI warehouse “is a significant environmental and immediate safety hazard.”
He expressed concern over UMI’s planned relocation and handling of the potentially dangerous agents during the move.
“[T[here are materials that may require overpacking and handling in a manner that they are not demonstrating the ability to perform in a safe and legal manner,” Golden wrote.
Acknowledging the request, Shelly Combs with DTSC told Golden “received both emails… I’ll forward to upper management and keep you posted.”
The next day Golden used similar language in asking for help from the California EPA.
A case number was assigned but the paperwork reviewed by Fox gives no indication the state agency responded in a timely manner.
On Nov. 9, Golden reached back to Combs at DTSC, saying he hadn’t “heard anything from upper management” and reiterated his concerns about UMI’s impending move. “Having 30 years working for the State, I know that the wheels don’t turn as fast as we wish,” Golden wrote. “I still have a concern that they will attempt to dispose of the chemicals and biological agents in an unsafe manner.”
That prompted the matter to reach DTSC’s Kevin Sanchez, who acknowledged receipt of Golden’s concerns.
The Fresno officer then fired off this warning, “I just wanted proper notification to go out for liability purposes.” Sanchez quickly replied, “your concerns/issues have been received and will be followed up.” There was no further correspondence included in Fresno’s response to Fox’s public records request.
Officials with the two state agencies tell Fox they responded by referring the matter back to Fresno County.
“DTSC does not regulate biohazard waste or infectious materials,” communications officer Alysa Pakkidis told Fox.
A CalEPA official said her agency simply forwarded Golden’s plea to DTSC, which then moved it along to “the applicable authority” in Fresno County’s Department of Public Health.
“CalEPA Emergency Response team does not have any statutory authority over bio-hazardous waste or infectious materials and does not regulate facilities that handle hazardous materials,” said Kalin Kipling-Mojaddedi, CalEPA’s acting deputy secretary for communications.
While the Fresno inspectors were the lead investigators, health officials in Fresno County were already on the case attempting to make contact with workers in the Chinese-linked lab.
“We wanted to know what were you doing, what chemicals did you have on site, what type of lab operations you had. And even at that time, they were unresponsive to us,” Fresno County Assistant Director of Public Health Joe Prado told Fox last month.
Fox’s attempts to reconnect with Prado about the state agency referrals were unsuccessful. He made no mention of these referrals during his Aug. 8 presentation to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. But in that same meeting he explained why his officers didn’t shut down the lab before it moved. “We don’t have the authority to go on to private property,” Prado said. “We need to have the right legal authority to enter private property without consent.”
Dozens of photographs taken by the Fresno inspectors show a dirty warehouse mirroring the video taken by lawyers for a Louisiana company that sued UMI.
The inspector’s conclusions of an out-of-compliance operation also match that of a private scientist hired by the Louisiana lawyers during its court-ordered inspection.
While all of this was happening there was one last communication with UMI management – the only written correspondence from UMI in the hundreds of pages of documents reviewed by Fox.
Officials would later report on the difficulties they had in securing accurate and timely information from UMI.
“Dear Raymond” is how a Nov. 8 email from UMI’s CEO started. This message reiterated claims that UMI was making “in vitro diagnostic test kits” and had fallen on hard times because of COVID and problems with its landlord.