One city's fight over biomed plans

The prospect of animal testing in a company laboratory provokes residents in Chandler, Ariz.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Little did officials in Chandler – one of the fastest-growing cities in the country – know the resistance they would meet in trying to retool their city's plan for attracting future business prospects.

When Covance, a multinational drug-testing company, elected to build a $44 million laboratory here – where it will test chemical and medical compounds on animals – residents, as well as national and international animal rights groups, mounted a vigorous campaign to block it.

At least two groups have formed that lead protests, marches, and educational sessions for neighborhood gatherings. And the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington organization whose goal is to find an alternative to animal testing, is backing one of the groups in a lawsuit against the city of Chandler.

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"I've never seen anything like this," says Dave Bigos, assistant to the mayor and Chandler City Council. "We have not only local people and organizations expressing their views, but national and international organizations, too."

It's certainly an emotionally charged issue – a 21st-century clash of "not in my backyard" arguments against a city's desire to have a vibrant business community.

On the one hand, animal rights activists want an end to testing toxic materials in animals – not just in Chandler, but everywhere. On the other hand, Chandler's city planners want to grow the local economy, and Covance wants a lab to service clients in the Western United States.

Center of the microchip industry

An upscale suburb of about 250,000 people on Phoenix's southeast side, Chandler has long been the center of the microchip industry in the Phoenix area. It's home to both Intel and Motorola. But as officials from Chandler began to see a need to attract other types of businesses to sustain the city's high quality of living and compete in the global economy, they realized they had to move beyond the microchip industry.

"We decided that we needed to diversify our base," says Mayor Boyd Dunn. "We wanted to get into the biomedical field. The governor has made it her priority."

Indeed, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) created Science Foundation Arizona, which partners with businesses to expand the state's bioscience and high-tech industries. And she's dedicated $100 million of state funds over the next four years to further develop such industries.

When Covance began looking to build a lab in the desert Southwest, some 17 communities vied for the opportunity to host the company. Chandler officials took tours of the company's labs in other towns and visited with officials in those towns. They also spoke with US government officials charged with oversight of Covance's facilities. Covance eventually selected Chandler and purchased property there in 2005.

From there, however, the deal has been steeped in controversy.

Protesters of the plans decry the method that the US government requires for the development of medicines and other compounds such as antibacterial cleansers: that they be tested on animals before humans. Critics claim the method is outdated and that the toxins they introduce in animals cause them to react differently than humans. They also note that the US Department of Agriculture cited Covance for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act in 2005.

But others point out that companies like Covance are following US regulations. "In this society, like all developed nations, any new compound, product, or medical device must be tested in a whole living system, and we do not test on humans first," says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a group in Washington dedicated to fostering support for humane and responsible animal research. "The law and regulations are really quite proscriptive in what a company has to do."

Most test animals – some 95 percent – are rodents bred for that purpose, Ms. Trull says. But Covance also tests on some primates, as well as dogs.

Battle over the property

Those opposed to Covance are also furious with the city for its approval process. Covance first purchased property along what is known as the Price corridor, a section of land that follows the north-south freeway through the city. It was zoned for agricultural use, and in order for Covance to build its lab there, it would have had to be rezoned as light industrial. Opposition to Covance building on that property was strong.

Yet as opponents focused on the Price property, the lawsuit alleges that Covance conspired with the city to purchase another property at the Chandler Airpark. It further claims that this purchase happened through a "front" company, which allegedly obtained rezoning before selling it to Covance.

"All we're asking the court to do is set this process back to the beginning, undo what's been done, and have an honest and open process where everyone gets to ... be heard," says Dan Kinburn, the attorney representing PCRM.

Besides the rezoning issues, those opposed to Covance say they are concerned about the waste these animals eliminate – after ingesting large amounts of drugs – and the disposal of carcasses. "The city of Chandler has not been responsive to residents' concerns at all," says Jan McClellan, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Covance.

City officials, though, say they've researched Covance's potential impact. "We've looked very carefully at the quantity of chemicals the facility will deal with," says Bob Mulvey, assistant municipal utilities director for the city of Chandler. "There won't be any negative environmental impacts from the company."

Last week, the city of Chandler filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. And Mr. Kinburn says he will file a motion for partial summary judgment.

Meanwhile, Covance is proceeding with construction of a 300,000-square-foot laboratory in Chandler, with an expected opening in mid-2009. "We anticipate employing in the neighborhood of 300 to 400 people," says Camilla Strongin, spokeswoman for Covance. "If the business climate is as favorable as we hope, the additional acreage will be beneficial for future expansion."

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