Safety and traffic lead AnC Bio Act 250 concerns

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A rendering of what the AnC Bio plant would look like from Lake Memphremagog.
A rendering of what the AnC Bio plant would look like from Lake Memphremagog.

copyright the Chronicle July 23, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — The AnC Bio facility started down the road to Act 250 approval Monday with a site visit from members of the District #7 Environmental Commission and an initial hearing.

Despite wide interest in the project and questions from neighbors of the biotech facility slated to be built at the site of the old Bogner plant, few Newport residents attended the hearing. Nor were there any representatives of state agencies present, aside from those working for the environmental commission.

The lack of representation from the state, such as the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Transportation, which frequently participate in Act 250 proceedings, suggested the project has not raised any red flags with them.

That was not the case with four of five city residents who attended the hearing. Pam Ladds, Anne Chiarello, and Diane Peel expressed various degrees of concern about the possibility that people might be made ill from toxins or viruses escaping from the facility.

Hugh McNeal said he worries AnC Bio will go under, leaving city taxpayers with an empty building. He said a similar facility closed in Lebanon, New Hampshire, despite its proximity to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and the Dartmouth Medical School.

What chance would a biotech plant have, built in the middle of nowhere? he asked.

William Perket, though, said he came to support the project.

“These are lifesaving activities,” he said of plans to manufacture heart-lung and dialysis units and to perform research on stem cell therapies.

All five Newport residents were granted party status as friends of the commission. That, explained Eugene Reid, the commission’s chairman, allows them to give testimony, but does not permit them to appeal the commission’s ruling.

Bill Kelly, who serves as counsel for AnC Bio, represented the developers of the project. He was backed by a team of architects, engineers and construction management personnel who helped make AnC Bio’s case for a permit.

Bill Stenger, co-owner of Jay Peak and one of the owners of AnC Bio, was not present at the meeting, but he listened in by cell phone and was sworn in as a party to the permit request by Mr. Reid along with the others.

At the site visit before the hearing, the three members of the environmental commission and Warren Foster, who is acting as commission coordinator for this project, saw the site on which the new plant is to be built. It’s perched on a bluff above Lake Memphremagog, although, at ground level the view of the lake is blocked by nearby trees.

Architect Fred Grossfeld of NNE Pharmaplan, the firm that designed the new building, said the site had been chosen in part for the views of the lake.

He said concerns about a glass building becoming a nuisance at night by shedding light from its interior were unfounded. Much of the building’s glass is opaque, meant to cover up the area between floors that houses duct work and other aspects of the plant’s complex environmental controls.

There will be very little light on the outside of the buildings and the light poles in the existing parking lot will be only ten feet tall, to avoid light pollution in the neighborhood, Mr. Grossfeld said.

A large section of the old Bogner building was demolished to create the building site, and the 25-acre parcel has been divided. Both parts, the one where the new building is to be put up and the portion on which the remaining portion of the Bogner building sits will be served by Bogner Drive.

That access road was formerly a city street, but, at the request of AnC Bio it was turned over to the company as a private road.

Mr. Kelly said the owners of AnC Bio are still looking for a tenant for the old Bogner building, but aren’t in a hurry to find one. Their concern is that putting another building on the site could increase traffic problems in the area.

Traffic was one of the problems brought up during the actual hearing, but the first concern expressed was that of the danger that experiments with dangerous organisms may be conducted in the facility, and some of those organisms could escape to infect local residents.

Ms. Chiarello said she was very much in favor of the stem cell work described by Mr. Kelly as well as the manufacture of biomedical devices.

Her concern was what controls would be in place to make sure the clean rooms rented by outside scientists were being used for proper purposes.

“What are the controls? How is it policed so no employees come out of clean rooms with infectious diseases?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Mr. Reid said. “I don’t know how it fits in our criteria.”

Later in the meeting he suggested that it might be considered under the heading of air pollution.

Mr. Grossfeld said the plant was designed with the safety of workers and the public in mind. He described air systems that recirculate 90 percent of the air through filters.

The matter captured in the filters and other materials produced by the plant are disposed of in accordance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, Mr. Grossfeld said. These include sterilizing materials before packaging them for disposal, he said.

It might not be a good idea to rely on federal oversight, Ms. Chiarello said.

“I hate to bad mouth the FDA,” she said. “But according to articles lately, you’ll be lucky if the FDA comes out once a year.”

Ms. Peel also pointed to recent articles saying improperly packaged virus samples have been shipped from laboratories run by the Center for Disease Control. She said AnC Bio President Ike Lee is also on the board of a vaccine manufacturer.

How are people to know the plant won’t be used to manufacture anthrax vaccine? she asked.

The question of traffic to and from the plant was also raised in the hearing. In response, engineer Debra Bell argued the site already received Act 250 approval for the Bogner facility. That included traffic from up to 250 employees, she said.

Their trips were grandfathered in, Ms. Bell said. If Bogner was still in operation, there would be no question about the traffic, she added.

Any traffic studies conducted by the Agency of Transportation already include the trips that would be taking place if Bogner were still in operation, Ms. Bell argued.

“You have to sell me on that,” Mr. Reid said. “I don’t know you’re right.”

The 400 people who will work at AnC bio will not be shift employees, punching a clock, Ms. Bell said. They’ll come and go at staggered times, not arriving and leaving all at once.

Mr. Reid was not convinced.

“That doesn’t change the problem when a whole bunch of people come out and make a right turn down Main Street,” he said.

Newport Mayor Paul Monette said the city doesn’t have a problem with AnC’s traffic. He said things weren’t unbearable when Bogner was in operation even though Poulin Lumber had a mill nearby at the same time, with a large amount of truck traffic coming and going.

“Main Street will always be a bottleneck until we do something about the railroad tracks and the turn onto the Causeway,” he said.

Dave Snedecker, director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA) said a traffic study completed recently backed up the mayor.

All existing and proposed development was plugged into the study’s model, Mr. Snedecker said, and there appeared to be no major problem with state highways. Pinch points on local streets remained the same as they always have been, he said.

“Not everyone is going to take Main Street,” Mr. Monette added.

“Yes, they’ll take side streets and try to find a shortcut to get back onto Main Street,” Mr. Reid said. “You’re the ones who are going to have to live with it, it won’t affect me. I don’t know if it’s an election year or not.”

Mr. McNeal sided with Mr. Reid. Traffic is already hard to negotiate in Newport when school gets out, he said.

The next step in the process will be a recess order in which the commission will lay out what issues it wishes to see addressed by AnC Bio. Assuming the permit process goes smoothly, and other necessary permits are obtained in time, Mr. Kelly said the company hopes to break ground in the spring, with construction completed in the fall of 2016.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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