Thursday, April 10, 2008

Plan to lure animal testing firm Covance has PETA growling

From the WBJ: Plan to lure animal testing firm Covance has PETA growling

In its plans to take over part of a plot vacated by Eli Lilly & Co. last year, Covance Inc. is bringing to Prince William County 450 jobs, $175 million in investments -- and the wrath of the country's leading animal activist group.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been sending letters in recent weeks urging county and state officials to rescind the combined $3.7 million in incentives for Princeton, N.J.-based Covance, which plans to consolidate its Northern Virginia operations on 47 acres inside Innovation@Prince William Technology Park.

Norfolk, Va.-based PETA charges that Covance, a $1.5 billion research contractor whose work includes using animals to test potential drugs for biotech and pharmaceutical clients, is cruel to animals in its care. Covance counters that PETA's claims are part of a "campaign of distortion of facts."

PETA said if it does not get the response it is seeking, starting with a meeting with county and state officials, it plans to rally local supporters and protest the planned facility in full force.

"At that point, we'll think about mobilizing activists," said Alka Chandna, a senior researcher at PETA who penned the letters. "We think there are a lot of issues residents can get behind in going against Covance."

That may well be the outcome. County officials said they planned to respond this week with a single letter from the Board of Supervisors chairman, restating their support of Covance as a new entry to help fill out the area's life sciences community and repeating the company's claims that any prior citations regarding animal care have been resolved.

"These allegations have already been fully investigated by the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Food and Drug Administration, as [being] well addressed by Covance," said Mona Terrell, a spokeswoman for Covance, which describes the animal rights group as "extremists." "PETA's agenda is not solely against Covance, but against the use of animals in biomedical research and the development of life-saving and life-enhancing medicines generally."

But PETA, which fights the FDA on issues of animal testing separately, said its concerns are directed at Covance's treatment of animals in its lab.

In a packet of materials PETA said it sent to the county Economic Development Department, each supervisor and Gov. Tim Kaine's office, the group included video footage that a PETA member took after getting a job at Covance's facility in Vienna, which will shut down when the company moves its operations to Manassas.

The video was a result of the PETA investigator's work as a lab technician from April 2004 to March 2005.

"Employees habitually slapped monkeys, choked them, threw them against cages and shook them violently," wrote Chandna in one letter to Kaine that also alleged poor animal importing practices by Covance. "Many animals exhibited signs of severe psychological trauma -- circling frantically in their cages, pulling out their hair and biting their own flesh."

PETA turned over its findings in 2005 to the Agriculture Department, which began its second investigation in recent years of Covance that June. The first investigation, which was started in August 1999 after some rabbits died in transit to the company's labs, did not turn up any violations.

In March 2006, however, the Agriculture Department found enough evidence for a potential court case against Covance but offered the company a chance to pay $8,720 to settle and fix any rule violations, said Jim Rogers, a department spokesman. Covance paid the fine, and the department has not investigated since.

The Agriculture Department's annual inspections since 2001 have resulted in four raised flags, mostly in the company's Wisconsin location. Two, in 2003 and 2004, described damaged areas along the walls, peeling and chipped paint on support beams and the floor base in a room that housed monkeys, and a large hole in the floor in a room that housed dogs.

Those issues were corrected by April 2005. A 2006 inspection, the most recent available, asked for more detail about a company committee that oversees animal care in research institutions, information the Agriculture Department received by June 2006. Also that year, in the Vienna lab on Leesburg Pike, inspectors found wooden boards, which dogs used for resting, with chewed edges, causing sharp points. The company fixed the boards a month later in June 2006.

"We don't have any reason to not support their relocation to Prince William," said Liz Bahrns, a county government spokeswoman. "Covance has corrected its issues. It has paid its fines. It is in good standing with the federal government at this time."

The company arrived at the county as an economic development saviour of sorts, setting its flag down on a plot abandoned for 10 months after it was reserved for Eli Lilly.

After trumpeting plans in 2002 to build a manufacturing plant for 700 workers and make $450 million in investments, Eli Lilly abruptly canceled even scaled-down plans in January 2007. The remaining 73 acres of its former plot are still on the market, but this past November Covance took a large chunk that included the metal shell of the plant.

"Having them here substantiates our position as a life sciences community," said Jason Grant, a spokesman for the county's Economic Development Department.

In addition to adding new jobs and construction, Covance is estimated to ultimately bring $1.2 million annually to the county's coffers in property taxes. County officials forecast that in its first 10 years in operation, Covance will pay $8 million in taxes, minus the county's own $1 million incentive investment.

With Prince William County getting the brunt of the region's housing slump -- it saw a 30 percent drop in total dollar volume in housing sales in March compared with the previous year -- the county could use the boost in property taxes that Covance would deliver on otherwise unused land today.

But Chandna said that is a short-term view that ignores broader ethical concerns.

Bahrns said the county expected Covance's move to come with costs.

In November, Bahrns was in talks with her counterpart in Chandler, Ariz., where packed hearing rooms, picketing protesters, a lawsuit and up to 1,000 angry e-mails a week illustrated the opposition by some in the community to a Covance research facility announced in 2005.

The facility is now under construction at a second location that needed rezoning -- not an issue for Prince William County, which is already zoned for this type of building. But the Chandler lab stands at the center of an attorney general's investigation into whether local legislators failed to inform members of the public about that change in location.

With PETA's former home base in Rockville and current base 180 miles south of Manassas, the organization expects to play a more vocal role in battling the company here, attending Board of Supervisor meetings and staging press conferences and rallies -- prospects that Bahrns said the county is prepared to face.

Not that Chandna thinks its journey will be any easier, though.

"Covance can outspend PETA," she said. "They can outspend us by multiple factors to one. We expect that as with Chandler, it's going to be a difficult road."

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