Town pulls biolab rules to regroup

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2010

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Two contentious warrant articles aimed at creating zoning regulations for biotechnology — and allowing Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics to begin using more dangerous substances in tests — were unexpectedly yanked from Town Meeting last week after months of heated debate.

The cause, officials said, was an 11th-hour change in the language of one of the initiatives, introduced by the Finance Committee, that would have effectively banned that scientific industry from operating anywhere over the town’s aquifer.

That includes about three-quarters of the town, said Christopher Timson, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

So, at the urging of various local officials, Town Meeting voters sent articles 24 and 25 back to the selectmen, where board members tomorrow night will begin assembling a new plan over the next few months.

The move surprised residents who have vocally opposed the two-pronged proposal to allow labs working with agents in the biosafety levels 1 and 2 categories to locate anywhere in town, while creating a special overlay district for Siemens to expand its Coney Street operation into the use of more serious, level 3 materials.

Typically, levels 1 and 2 agents can pass from person to person only by blood, officials said, whereas level 3 materials can become airborne.

Like any such facility, Siemens employs the required safety and containment features to offset such situations, they said.

At a series of heated public meetings, though, including one before the town’s Board of Health last month, neighbors said they feared toxic spills, inadequate disaster response, and clusters of illness along abutting streets that they feared are more than just coincidence.

In an interview on Wednesday, Timson said he began to realize last week that the articles should be withdrawn after receiving a number of calls from alarmed Town Meeting representatives who did not appear to have all the information to make an informed vote.

“I’m disappointed because I feel many of the people who were opposed, somehow didn’t have all the information,’’ Timson said. “If they had, they might be able to be supportive. This is not the bogeyman they were thinking it was.’’

A call to Siemens for comment was not immediately returned.

Some residents, including Jeff Padell of Sandra Road, say selectmen knew it was in their best interest to pull the articles before being trampled by voters.

“If they were shot down, they had less of a chance of ever coming back,’’ Padell said.

Now, he said, officials have time to “sugarcoat’’ the issue before reintroducing it to residents in the fall.

Padell said he has faced one medical issue after another, from cancer to a stroke at age 46, in the three decades he has lived near the lab.

“Is it coincidence?’’ he mused, adding there is no way to know.

He and others expressed concerns that Siemens might have had a hand in writing the articles, which were then reviewed by the town’s attorney.

“It’s a little like the fox writing the security plan for the hen house,’’ Padell said.

In a presentation posted on Walpole’s website, Sam Lipson, the director of environmental health in Cambridge, a center in the biotechnology industry, said late last year that biotech facilities aren’t a risk to the town’s water supply.

And last month, Michael Canary, Siemens’s senior director for reagent manufacturing, process engineering, and facilities, said the company only manufactures tests in Walpole and wants to expand its operations to products that require level 3 agents.

He said that work would not be performed on all shifts, and when exposure to the agents was warranted, it would be approached in small amounts in a confined area, like a bench top.

Typically, Canary said, a vial that contains one of the higher-level components is opened only a few minutes a day as a scientist works with the substance.

But area residents said they are terrified of the higher-level agents becoming airborne and causing serious or deadly consequences.

The Siemens biolab, built in 1993, operated largely unnoticed by local voters until last year, when selectmen backed off a plan to ban biosafety level 3 work after they learned that the company, the town’s largest taxpayer, was moving into that field.

Under new regulations proposed by the Board of Health, Siemens would have to apply for a permit to manufacture the more high-risk tests, or any that deal with recombinant DNA.

Doctors’ offices and others that perform level 1 or level 2 tests, like blood tests, would not need permits.

Timson said he doubts the issue will rise again until after town election next month, when a new Board of Selectmen will be seated.

Then, work can begin to sort the issue out, he said, with the chance the articles could reappear as early as the fall Town Meeting.

“Now we just have to decide what’s the best way to proceed,’’ he said.

“I hope we can get this done.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at

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