Kate Riley / Times staff columnist
I-297: the repercussions of drive-by public policy
Consider the Richland company that has refined a treatment for prostate cancer so the patient suffers fewer side effects.
The first patient received the treatment in November at the University of Washington Medical Center and four others have since then. Doctors are excited about the prospects.
It's biotech. It's cutting edge. It's just the kind of industry we want more of in Washington state.
Now consider that IsoRay Medical has halted site engineering work for its new $10 million production plant and put on hold its plans to expand its work force from 16 to 250.
The good work of IsoRay — and its potential economic impact for Richland and the state — might be lost because of the uncertainty caused by Initiative 297. Voters handily approved the measure because they believed it would halt nuclear waste shipments to the Hanford nuclear reservation in the state's southeast.
This is the trouble with the drive-by nature of making public policy by initiative — unintended consequences. In I-297's case, the measure was barely law when the Department of Justice sued the state — no surprise there! — saying the law violated the Constitution's commerce clause and inappropriately interfered with the federal government's national nuclear cleanup program. Last week, state officials agreed not to enforce the law until after an April hearing.
IsoRay produces a new kind of radioactive seed used to treat patients with prostate cancer. For several years, seeds using other isotopes have been implanted in patients to deliver radioactivity to treat the cancer. But IsoRay's seeds are made from cesium 131, which has a much shorter half life. That means the cesium seeds stop producing radioactivity after about 120 days — compared with 600 days for iodine 125. The shorter half life is better for patients.
Former state Rep. Lane Bray, a Richland scientist, developed the patented process and helped found the company in 1998. With its successful first treatments, IsoRay seemed off and running. Besides the cesium seeds, it hoped to become a new domestic supplier of an isotope to treat non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
That is, until the feds apparently decided to interpret I-297 as applying to many radioactive materials, not just nuclear defense waste. When the measure took effect Dec. 3, the Department of Energy's national lab in Richland notified workers it would suspend most work with radioactive materials, including cancer research. The next day, a judge imposed a restraining order against the state permitting such work to continue.
But Energy's interpretation poses a problem for IsoRay. The private company makes its seeds at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory from enriched barium shipped from the University of Missouri Research Reactor.
"The tragic thing is just as we're ramping up for this demand, we're absolutely hit between the eyes with this initiative," said John Hrobsky, IsoRay's executive vice president. Company officials have visited sites out of state, but they want to stay in Richland to draw on a work force that is sophisticated about nuclear materials.
The ironic thing about the initiative is it passed in every Washington county except in Benton and Franklin, the two most closely affected by Hanford cleanup. That tells you something.
"We have not signed any final deals to leave the state," Hrobsky said. "But we are dead serious about exploring alternatives."
Private legal opinions differ on whether the company could continue to import the enriched barium if IsoRay no longer used the lab's facilities. The national lab memo suggests the initiative might apply to non-Energy Department enterprises as well.
The company has asked for help from Rep. Doc Hastings and Washington's two U.S. senators as well as local state legislators.
Dick Larman, a managing director for the state Department of Community Trade and Economic Development, said life sciences is among the state's top-six-targeted industries for economic development, but his office has not been asked for help.
Possibly complicating the situation is leadership churn in Washington's governor's office and Department of Energy. Gov. Gary Locke is a lame duck, and the tightness of the interminable governor's race recount makes no heir readily apparent. Also, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has announced he's leaving and his successor has to come up to speed.
Still, you would think a couple of well-placed calls and the meeting of reasonable minds would be able to solve the problem for IsoRay. Clearly, IsoRay is not shipping waste into the state.
We need a tiger team on this one. Companies like IsoRay are the future of Washington state. Don't let this one get away.
Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
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