Lorain ponders ban on beryllium

January 4, 2000

LORAIN, O. - Back in the 1940s, this city along the shores of Lake Erie was the scene of one of the most tragic public health cases in Ohio history: Residents living near a plant producing the metal beryllium, as well as workers inside the factory, were contracting a lung disease caused by the metal's dust.

Many people grew gravely ill, and some died.

Now, Lorain Councilwoman Kathy Tavenner does not want history to repeat itself. She introduced legislation before the Lorain city council last night that would effectively ban beryllium from the city. "All we are doing is looking out for the interests of the people who live here in the city,'' Ms. Tavenner said in an interview.

The measure would ban the manufacture, sale, or transportation of beryllium within city limits. The ban would apply to all companies, including a plant opened in 1997 by Brush Wellman, Inc., America's leading beryllium producer.

Brush's predecessor, Brush Beryllium, operated the factory that apparently caused people to become ill in the 1940s. That plant closed in 1948 and was later torn down.

"We're not attacking Brush Wellman, by no means,'' Ms. Tavenner said. "But with what happened with the beryllium plant here before, I think that we need to be cautious."

The council referred the plan to the city's legal department after Law Director Mark Provenza raised questions about the measure's language. For example, he said, beryllium is in X-ray machines. Would such equipment be banned from the city?

Councilwoman Tavenner said the intent of the measure is not to ban finished products that contain beryllium but rather the manufacture and storage of the material. Beryllium is widely used in the defense, electronics, and telecommunications industries.

Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said the company could not comment until it has studied the plan. Brush officials have said its Lorain plant employs about 30 workers and manufactures bronze materials. He said the plant does not use beryllium and has no plans to do so "in the foreseeable future."

"It would not be possible to process beryllium in that plant in its current configuration," the Brush spokesman said. "In order to do it, we would have to add significant amount of equipment'' and go through a permitting process. "And certainly city council in Lorain would be fully aware of that."

Councilwoman Tavenner said she started pushing for the ban after reading a series of articles in The Blade last year on the hazards of beryllium. The series documented how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.

About 1,200 Americans have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including at least 21 workers at the former Lorain plant. More than 20 residents who lived near the plant but who never worked there became ill; at least six died.

The proposed law states that the manufacture and sale of beryllium "poses an extreme risk to the citizens of Lorain, Ohio, and constitutes a threat to the public safety, health, and welfare."

Brush, the measure says, "has been unable to safely manufacture beryllium at its Elmore, Ohio, plant." The measure cites a report last week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which fined the Elmore plant $49,950 for 19 violations, including overexposing workers to beryllium dust.

Lorain, 75 miles east of Toledo, has a population of 71,000.

Blade Staff Writer David Patch contributed to this report.

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