California legislators and leaders of the biotechnologyindustry are meeting today in San Diego at the first CalBioSummit to address major issues facing the state's biotechindustry.

The one-day meeting is hosted by the San Diego BiocommerceAssociation (BIOCOM) and the Biomedical Industry Council ofSan Diego (BIC).

The conference will consider alternatives for what to do withlow-level radioactive waste when California companies are nolonger able to ship it out of the state.

The federal government has decided that by the end of thisyear, California must be responsible for disposing of its ownlow-level radioactive waste, a byproduct of the biotech andmedical/health care industries.

The proposed disposal site is small, isolated Ward Valley, inthe southeast portion of the state near Needles. A squeeze playbetween environmentalists and political opponents, however,has held up final approval of Ward Valley as a dumping ground.Wes Ervin, biotechnology coordinator for the CaliforniaDepartment of Commerce, said a final license for the sitemight not be approved until 1994.

Meanwhile, biotech companies can either pay five times thecurrent cost -- that would come to $1,200 per barrel,excluding transport and storage costs -- at a South Carolinasite, if it remains open or, in a worst-case scenario, store on-site, an option certain to meet with opposition from localcommunities.

In the recent debate over the California budget, Gov. PeteWilson vetoed bill AB3295, which would have categorized thetoxic waste that affects the Ward Valley issue. AssemblymanJohn Vasconcellos, D-23rd District, a supporter of themeasure, said he expected at least a compromise. "We tried toget a timely hearing to negotiate a settlement on AB3295 andthought there would be negotiations to free up the less-dangerous biotech waste material and place importance on themore worrisome substances being disposed," he said.

Central to the issue is the lack of understanding about thewaste. "The public thinks we're setting up a Chernobyl nextdoor," said Assemblyman John Quackenbush, R-22nd District,whose district includes San Jose , near a concentration ofNorthern California biotechnology companies.

Assemblywoman Didi Alpert, D-78th District, who alsosupports the Ward Valley site, agreed with Quackenbush."People are unsure of what 'nuclear medicine' is and exactlywhat will be disposed," she said.

Still, Quackenbush predicted that the looming deadline willprompt a quick solution.

According to Ervin, California's biotech companies are lobbyingmore heavily over this issue than over any previous oneaffecting them. "The industry is very interested in getting asite approved," he said

Other issues expected to be addressed at the meeting includeCalifornia's lengthy process for environmental permits and itsperceived lack of tax incentives and financial assistance,particularly for start-up biotech companies and those in theresearch and development phase.

Steven Mendell, chief executive officer of Xoma Corp. inBerkeley, will present the state overview at the meeting witha special focus on education. "California's education system,once recognized as the best in the nation, is clearly beginningto erode -- a very serious issue if we want to maintain high-value industry in California," he said.

Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, who is coordinatingan international effort to develop an HIV vaccine, also willgive his perspective for the global future of the biomedicalindustry.

-- Michelle Slade Associate Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.