LETTER: Watertown Needs Committee to Oversee Biotech Labs in Town

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Dear Friends & Neighbors,

I delivered the following comments to our Town Council on August 14, 2018.:

I am here to talk about Biotech in Watertown.

Last week, August 8th, I attended a Planning Board hearing regarding Arsenal Yards. At the hearing, the developer requested approval for façade modifications, changes to the ‘river green’ layout, and a change of use to Building A’s second floor from a commercial office/retail use to a combination of office and R&D use

Since I could find no staff report, I checked a promo piece for Arsenal Yards, and found that, without receiving approval from the Planning Board, they are already promoting 100,000 square feet of creative office and “lab space” (www.arsenalyards.com/office/).

During the meeting, the Planning Board was focused on proposed changes to the windows, entrances, the roof, and the ventilation system. Until I posed the question regarding “use”, nobody https://consteril.com/biosafety-levels-difference/ad raised concerns about R&D. Nobody spoke of labs, the biosafety levels intended for these labs, and their suitability at this particular site. I shared definitions of proposed levels 1 and 2 (https://consteril.com/biosafety-levels-difference) and suggested that the Planning Board hit the pause button, allowing time for the issue to be thoroughly researched.

After some discussion Jeff Brown, Chair of the Planning Board agreed and continued the hearing until September 12. Bravo Jeff Brown!

Arsenal Yards Developers Seek Biotech Tenants, Planning Board Wants More Details

Do you realize that Watertown has no ordinance, no regulations, no required annual inspection and report, no review process, no safety or training protocols, and no biotech oversight committee regarding these biotech labs?

Currently Community Development and Planning estimates that there are about 20 biotech labs in Watertown. There is no documentation as to what level they are, what they are working on, or exactly where they are located.

Given the 2-minute limit at Public Forum – I’ll be back. Thank you.

At the Planning Board meeting, the developers did their best to downplay any potential hazards, referring to all the biotech in Cambridge, near residential properties. But, they are not the ones in jeopardy if something goes wrong. (Note: Cambridge seems to have the “gold”  standard regarding biosafety (www.cambridgepublichealth.org/services/regulatory-activities/biosafety/index.php).

The LINX building use changed from office space to a bio-tech level-two facility. I could find no Town documentation to support this change from office space to lab R&D. LINX is in an Industry-2 district. According to our zoning ordinance, p.37, 5.01, 5 (e) 2, laboratories require a Special Permit and Site Review
(https://www.ci.watertown.ma.us/DocumentCenter/View/3364/ZONING-ORDINANCE–Amended-192018?bidId=). LINX is fully leased with five bio-tech tenants. It is a very cool building. Could LINX be sold in the near future? Then what?

Should we simply trust the tenants to police themselves? Apparently, that is what we are doing with each of the 20 or so labs we currently have.

Again, what kind of work are these labs doing? What safety precautions are being taken? Are animals involved? Do they have adequate security? What are their protocols for waste disposal, for emergency responders?

So far, I have investigated ordinances and regulations in Cambridge, Belmont, Newton, Bedford, Lexington, Arlington, and Waltham. All these communities have regulations and biosafety oversight committees.

For the record, I am not opposed to having biotech labs in Watertown. I am opposed to a policy or should I say “non-policy” of treating them as though they are just another group of commercial tenants.

At this point, we have no idea of what we don’t know. How do we address this uncertainty of what we don’t know? What is the purpose of government if not to serve and protect its citizens? I believe the only way we can build trust regarding the growing biotech industry in town is through transparency, clear expectations, and controls.

I urge this Council to promptly appoint a committee to establish an ordinance, regulations, and a biotech oversight committee, before something unimaginable happens that makes other town problems seem minor.


Thank you for listening.

Elodia Thomas
Watertown Resident

11 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Needs Committee to Oversee Biotech Labs in Town

  1. As a biotech professional myself I keen to agree to the need of the lab regulations and oversight. In reality, biologics/living organisms is only part of the issue. But there is also an issue of chemical and radio-isotope waste.
    All in all, I suggest not to invent the bicycle, but use Cambridge regulations as a template. At the end, Watertown can not afford to draft those regulations from scratch. So let’s use Cambridge ones as a base and maybe add/remove certain clauses, which might be outdated.
    I also suggest inviting the industry stake holders that are currently have labs in Watertown. Most of them are seasoned professionals, well familiar of the best practices in the industry. If we have them on board, Watertown can have regulations which will make it even more appealing for new companies to move in.

  2. Sounds like we missed that boat and that we should have policies in place already. The fact that we don’t have a policy in place also makes me wonder if our Fire/Police are aware of any potential gaps in needs, if an issue arises at these facilities?
    I agree with Alex, Cambridge is a great place to look to with respect to a policy and we may not want to reinvent the wheel here but use theirs as a starting point. We should hit the pause button here and make sure we(all residents/town) understand what having a Level 2 Biotech industry means and safeguards in place if we choose to go forward with more. Great work Elodia and thank you!

  3. I am surprised to learn that Watertown has “no ordinance, no regulations, no required annual inspection and report, no review process, no safety or training protocols, and no biotech oversight committee regarding these biotech labs” in town. I urge the town to draft the necessary ordinances, etc. to oversee and regulate the biotech labs and second the previous comment suggesting that the regulations Cambridge has in place are a perfect template to use.

  4. By all means Watertown should assess current biotech research and/or production. Looking at what Cambridge has put in place is excellent starting point for some regulations pertinent to our community. Also we need to understand what is applicable at the State level. Bio waste, radioactive isotope use/disposal and proper animal husbandry are very important areas to regulate. No doubt Cambrige has touched these topics and much more.

  5. I agree with Elodia. This is nothing new – it’s about the right to know

    I remember when my husband Jack was a firefighter . He was very concerned about a call he responded to.

    It was a chemical company . When he arrived an rmployee was turning all kinds of valves .

    Jack said firefighters had no information about what kind of chemicals they were what they are used for – what kind of business was operating .

    – and that was about 33 years ago !.

    Our firefighters have been exposed for years to unknown egregious conditions

    There should be public knowledge -most especially to the firefighters
    Of all such operations

    As a widow of a firefighter , I will never know what my husband and other firefighters were and are now exposed to .

    This is unacceptable ! An investigation and report is necessary on all present and future planned biotech operations.
    Thank you
    Marilyn M.Petitto Devaney

  6. I also agree with Elodia, and will send my suggestions to her directly. I am frankly furious, but I won’t rant here; I will simply say that this seems typical of what I’ve seen of town government since I moved here nearly 20 years ago.

  7. Great work, Elodia. Thank you! We have to anticipate and prepare, not be caught in a dangerous situation. Glad to see so many thoughtful comments.

  8. Thank you Elodia for bringing this topic to light. This is a huge issue. First of all, it seems that these developers are taking the tack of do first, ask for forgiveness later. Seems to me that this was their plan all along. First of all it was going to be a shopping center, with a bowling ally and movie theater, hotel and residential, now it is going to be a biotech center?? 8 story buildings, now 19 stories??
    Most biotech companies are pretty benign, but not knowing what hazardous materials are being used in a facility, especially if a fire or spill happens, is extremely important to first responders, and neighbors. Labs have pretty stringent protocols, but mistakes do happen. Biotech is the new Silicon Valley for the Boston area, and it is expanding at an alarming rate. Great for the economy of the Boston area, but still with a lot of unknowns. We do need to follow Cambridges lead and require inspections, and transparency in knowing what the labs are doing, and what materials they are using. These facilities are being built in residential areas, not industrial parks. They are even going to have a hotel, and expensive residential buildings on site. Also, with the site so close to the Charles River, what potential issues for the river and it’s ecosystem, if an accident happens. The residence of Watertown have a right to know as it could affect them, us, directly. Please consider this a serious subject for the citizens of Watertown and the surrounding communities.

  9. First of all I understand wanting to know more about the biotech companies in the area.
    I work at a biotech company in Watertown and I know for a fact that the fire department is in contact with my company and knows what we have on site. Also as far as inspections go, we can be visited at any time unannounced by the USDA, FDA, etc. If a company is out of bounds it is documents for the public to see and they will shut down anyone that is in violation of anything. We aren’t running a free for all here. My husband is at another biotech company in Watertown and he can say the same about his company.
    As far as being transparent with the community about whether animals are being used I would use caution. There’s a fun group called PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) who will petition outside companies and academic labs trying to get inside and free all the animals. They have also been known to send mail with razors or dangerous substances to people who might be involved in animal work at a company. Companies need to be careful with how much information they give out regarding research done with animals. Please understand that anywhere there is research with animals, a committee called the IACUC (institutional care and use committee) exists to ensure that all work done with the animals is justified. There is also a veterinarian on staff that checks on animals regularly and everyone who is going to work with animals is required to be tested on their skills, receive training if needed, must go through yearly training on IACUC rules.
    I understand that this information is not obvious to everyone unless you work at a biotech company. I think that more education needs to be given to the community on how biotech companies are run.
    Anyone else in the biotech community please chime in. I think it’s important.

  10. Your letter seems to be written under the mistaken understanding that there is no oversight at any of these companies. The reality is that the biotech industry is heavily regulated by both state and federal agencies, and this includes companies operating in Watertown. Any company operating in MA is going to be licensed by the EPA, MWRA, and DOT for storage of hazardous chemicals and generation of hazardous/medical/biological wastes. Biology/biotechnology labs are required to follow OSHA/NIH lab safety regulations. Animal work is strictly controlled under OLAW/IACUC and USDA policies. All companies in this space are subject to inspections and reporting requirements to federal, state, and local agencies. Companies in town submit yearly reports and are subject to yearly permitting by the Watertown Fire Department for flammable solvent storage handling. First-responders in town are well aware of what each company has on site and where each company is located.

    People are blindly citing the Cambridge regulations without having read or understood any of them as if they are some panacea for easing concerns. Cambridge simply cites the federal/NIH guidelines on biosafety regulation and requires each company to apply for (read:pay for) a license, and allows for city regulators to inspect facilities should they chose to do so. This changes nothing about how companies currently operating in Watertown would function.

    • Of course we have Federal/State policies though Watertown doesn’t have the policy in place for itself. Our community(IMO) should want to have an open and transparent discussion around the existing policy/policing/accountability(fed/state) and fill in the holes where needed. I’m not against biotech business but certainly believe any town would want to have full understanding and community input around new/existing endeavors. Especially in areas where there could possible be detrimental effect if something went very wrong. We are citing Cambridge as a possible starting point since they have gone down this road as a City already. Watertown may need something different or similar, we won’t know until we start the conversation.

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