Questions linger on illegal lab found in Reedley

As the city of Reedley finishes the cleanup on an illegal lab found in an abandoned building on I Street, a Fresno city councilmember launches investigation into its operations

Prestige Bio building from west driveway. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published August 3, 2023  • 
9:00 am

REEDLEY – As the building’s cleanup stretched into its fourth day, questions remain regarding the mysterious owners of the lab. Questions like: what the lab was actually producing, why there were highly infectious agents onsite – many of which may have been improperly stored – and why was the Reedley location chosen as the repository for thousands of chemicals, unlabeled vials, and blood and tissue samples?

A loader moving materials out of the warehouse and dumping it into a waste container in effort to finish cleaning up the building. (Darren Fraser)

Reedley Code Enforcement Officer Jesalyn Harper is overseeing the site cleanup at the building on 850 I Street.

“We’re into the fourth day of our abatement order,” Harper said. Her cleanup team was tasked with removing machines, machine components, furniture and other items not related to chemicals or biologicals.

“Our abatement order is important because we are clearing up space so the county and EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) can come in,” Harper said. She said county officials will work with the EPA to dispose of chemicals still onsite. 

On Aug. 2, cleanup workers used a front loader to haul materials from the warehouse to outside dumpsters. Harper said all of the material will either be destroyed or trucked to a landfill. She added the cleanup is expected to be completed by Aug. 8.

WHAT WERE THEY MAKING?

The question about what was being made at the lab is one of many questions Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, representative of Fresno District 6, wants the lab owner, Prestige Biotech, Inc., to answer. 

A picture of boxes and other materials piled up. (Fresno Superior Court)

During a July 31 press conference, Bredefeld announced he is launching an investigation into Prestige.

“We the city of Fresno will be doing our due diligence, looking at any relationship that occurred in this city with this lab or what they may be trying to do in the future,” he said.

In an interview with the Times, Bredefeld said he was skeptical regarding Prestige’s claims the company was making pregnancy and COVID-19 tests.

“I don’t believe that,” Bredefeld said. “I think there is clearly something more sinister in play. What do pregnancy tests have to do with rubella? Pneumonia? Malaria? What do they have to do with anything? The medical waste was being disposed of illegally; where did it go? Are there any potential impacts to the surrounding area?”

A photo of multiple freezers lined up against a wall. (Fresno Superior Court)

THE PUBLIC HAD A RIGHT TO KNOW

In his press conference and in his interview with the Times, Bredefeld criticized the Fresno County Department of Public Health (FCDPH) and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors for not alerting the public sooner about the existence of the lab.

“The fact they (FCDPH) followed their guidelines was the right thing to do,” Bredefeld said. “What they forgot to do was notify the public about what was transpiring and what had transpired. And that’s my problem with them and that’s my problem with the board of supervisors.”

Bredefeld contrasted the lack of publicly-available information regarding the existence of the lab with how the county responded during COVID.

“The board of supervisors and Vohra (Dr. Rais Vohra, FCDPH Interim Health Officer) held press conferences spewing this (COVID) information every week to the media,” Bredefeld said. “And here we discover Wuhan Lab 2.0 in Reedley, and nothing. They don’t inform the public at all.”

He added, “The public has a right to know and the fact that the board of supervisors did not hold a press conference and inform the public is disgraceful.”

THE MOVE TO REEDLEY

A picture of the building from outside. (Fresno Superior Court)

After the Times broke this story, multiple news outlets reported Prestige moved to Fresno from Reedley because of a fire at its Fresno lab. According to the public information office of the Fresno Fire Department (FFD), the fire occurred on Aug. 26, 2020. A spokesman for FFD said the fire was not catastrophic; that it started at a workstation and damage was minimal.

Bredefeld said from what his investigation has discovered, Prestige continued to occupy the Fresno lab following the fire. Bredefeld believes the company moved its facilities to Reedley because Fresno’s Code Enforcement Division repeatedly cited the Fresno location for building code violations.

“They were getting pressure from our code enforcement for a bunch of hazards,” Bredefeld said. “Things hanging out of electrical outlets. A myriad of safety issues related to code enforcement.”

The Times submitted a public records request to the Fresno Code Enforcement Division for information relating to code violations after Aug. 26, 2020 at the Fresno facility.

In a related story, ABC30 reported Reedley intends to destroy the warehouse at 850 I Street.

“Not true,” City Manager Nicole Zieba said.

Darren Fraser
Reporter