Waste Dump Is Regarded as a Test of City Support for Biotech Firms : Environment: The industry says the site for low-level radioactive materials near Needles is vital to its future. The council says it wants more information.


Biotechnology industry veteran Howard Birndorf doesn't blame the San Diego City Council for wanting to share the spotlight now being focused on local companies' astonishing advances.

But Birndorf, who in 1978 co-founded Hybritech, the city's oldest biotech firm, questions whether council members are willing to share less attractive facets of the industry that will play an increasingly important role in the city's economy.

Birndorf's concern surfaced earlier this year when the council refused to endorse a proposed low-level radioactive waste dump at Ward Valley in the desert near Needles that would handle waste generated by California companies, hospitals and research institutions.

It also would handle waste from about 75 San Diego County generators, a majority of which are biotech firms that use low-level radioactive materials in product research and development. It would also handle a small amount of waste generated by some hospitals that use radioactive materials in diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

In February, the council voted against endorsing the facility, in part because it lacked adequate information about the proposed site, according to Councilwoman Valerie Stallings.

The council's failure to act on the Ward Valley site upset biotech executives because new federal regulations will prohibit California waste generators from shipping their waste across state lines after Jan. 1, 1993. The only certified dumps in the Western United States are in Washington and Nevada.

Without the Ward Valley dump, local generators would be forced to store waste on site, a potentially expensive step for many firms, said Marty Malter, director of environmental health and safety at UC San Diego, which regularly ships waste generated by researchers at the La Jolla campus.

State regulators are still reviewing the proposed dump, which has been under regulatory scrutiny for years. Although a council endorsement is not technically necessary for the dump to open, proponents of it are seeking endorsements statewide to buttress their claim that it is needed.

Even if the state were to immediately acquire land for the dump, it would take as long as a year to ready it for waste materials, according to state officials. The dump would be used by a variety of local waste generators, including UCSD, Gensia Pharmaceuticals, General Atomics, the Navy and the nuclear generating plant at San Onofre.

"You have the potential for multiple storage sites all around the state," said Kenneth Widder, chief executive of Molecular Biosystems. "That's not what you want."

Industrial waste, including liquids and solids used in experiments and product manufacturing and plastics, paper, protective clothing and equipment--is now shipped out of state.

In contrast, high-level radioactive materials used to generate electric power at nuclear plants such as San Onofre are stored at the plants.

Birndorf acknowledged that his industry is bound to be at odds with the council on some issues. Although no firms have left town because of the council's failure to act, Birndorf said the lack of a dump might prompt an exodus of disgruntled firms.

"We don't believe that any industry, including biotech, can or should get everything that they want all the time," Birndorf said. "But this is an industry that needs to be courted . . . and there are other states and cities that do want us."

Biotech executives acknowledged that the use of radioactive materials is a volatile issue.

One measure of just how volatile: A local biotech company allowed The Times to photograph an employee using radioactive materials, but executives declined to allow the firm's name to be used with the photograph.

Although Birndorf acknowledged that the proposed dump has generated controversy, he said San Diego's government agencies and the local biotech industry must develop "a spirit of cooperation . . . on issues, including hazardous waste, that have to be discussed intelligently."

"What we would like is the city to endorse the need for Ward Valley," said Gensia Chairman David Hale, who also serves as president of the recently formed Biomedical Industry Council, a trade group that represents about 40 local biotech firms. "The only solution that will work is Ward Valley . . . and, without it, some companies face real economic hardship," said Hale, whose firm uses radioactive materials.

Most smaller companies, which are hard-pressed for space, simply don't have the room to store added waste, Hale said. They would also be forced to seek exemptions to their state permits, which allow for waste to be stored for a set period.

Widder is lobbying the council to support Ward Valley even though his firm uses very little in the way of low-level radioactive waste. Widder said he got involved because "Ward Valley is the right thing to do. . . . The biotech industry needs it."

The lobbying has generated a partial victory. Council members, who at first refused to endorse the proposed dump, subsequently agreed to review the issue.

However, Stallings, a former cancer researcher at the Salk Institute, said she is "still in a data-gathering phase" and has not yet made a decision on whether to support the dump. "I want to be assured that what we're talking about putting in there is compatible with the environment."

Although Stallings said she "wants to help biotechnology because it is a good and desirable industry, there has to be a balance on what we can do for them and what we can't do."

Biotech executives expressed confidence that the council will eventually reverse field and support the proposed dump, in part because it recently targeted the growing industry as a key element of the city's future economy. Biotech executives said they would view council backing for the Ward Valley dump as tangible proof of that support.

The council isn't alone in its reluctance to deal with the low-level radioactive waste issue. Californians historically have handled the waste by shipping it to out-of-state dumps.

"For 30 years, it's been out of site, out of mind," said Steve Romano, vice president of California operations for US Ecology, an Agoura Hills-based company that operates the low-level dumps in Nevada and Washington that handle all of California's wastes.

Proponents of the Ward Valley site said opposition to the dump is driven in large part by misperceptions about which firms generate low-level radioactive waste.

"Many people feel that large quantities of low-level waste are coming from nuclear power reactors," said Malter, the UCSD safety director. "But larger quantities are coming from researchers at the biotech firms, the universities, the research institutions."

The San Onofre plant does generate low-level radioactive materials that are being buried at out-of-state dumps. The Navy also generates low-level waste during overhauls of nuclear-powered vessels.

San Onofre's three generating units annually create about 12,000 cubic feet of low-level waste, including tools, equipment and safety clothing, said David Barron, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, which operates the nuclear plant. High-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel rods, is stored at the plant, he said.

But San Diego's 75 "active" waste generators--excluding San Onofre--shipped about 34,000 cubic feet of waste between 1986 and 1991, Romano said. The list includes about 50 biotech firms, he said.

Waste typically is stored in metal drums with a capacity of about 7.5 cubic feet. Although most generators have limited on-site storage room, without Ward Valley, they would have to expand those holding areas, Malter said.

"We'll probably have to petition the state for an amendment to our radioactive materials license so we can extend our storage," Malter said. "Then we'd have to build a facility or a lean-to to protect the waste from the elements."

UCSD ships about 40 barrels of waste a year, Malter said. Ten years ago, it generated about 500 barrels annually. The dramatic reduction occurred because "we've been managing waste better," Malter said.

Sources of California's low-level radioactive waste, 1985-90.

Medical and biotechnology: 23%

Federal government: 6%

Industrial sources: 26%

Academic institutions:12%

Utility industry: 32%

Other: 1%

Source: US Ecology Corp.

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