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Thursday June 16, 2011 | 01:34 PM

Sen. Susan Collins says she has won a commitment from the Obama administration to keep open a Department of Agriculture lab at the University of Maine in Orono.

The 16-member staff apparently was being told the news at a 1 p.m. staff meeting.

An official with the New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory referred Maine on the Hill to the lab’s supervisor in Philadelphia. That USDA official was out, and a message also was left with a USDA spokeswoman in Maryland.

The Maine Republican, a member of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s agriculture subcommittee said in a release this afternoon that while the president has put funding for the lab in his budget request over the past few years, including for 2012, it was mistakenly labeled a congressional “earmark” in the agriculture department’s own budget. Earmarks, of course, are out these days, and the agriculture department marked the lab for closure, according to Collins.

"The past several months have been difficult for the lab employees and their families who were told that they would be transferred to other research facilities around the country, including as far away as North Dakota and Mississippi,” Collins said in a statement. “I was particularly troubled that the Department planned to close the lab when it has the flexibility under the law to keep the laboratory open.” 

The lab works on research pertaining to Maine crops and industries such as potatoes and blueberries and on food safety efforts.

“Shuttering this important lab and sending these employees, who are dedicated to improving the yields and disease-resistance of some of Maine's most important crops, simply didn't make sense,” Collins said. “I truly appreciate the White House's willingness to consider my argument and its commitment to keep the lab open."


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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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