Beryllium report disappoints DeWine

May 20, 2000

WASHINGTON - A new government report on the health hazards faced by nuclear workers exposed to beryllium drew an immediate critical response from Sen. Mike DeWine (R., O.), who contends that it offers little new information.

The 18-page General Accounting Office report, released late yesterday, provides a chronology on the federal government use of beryllium, as well the evolving government response to health risks posed by it.

But GAO officials offer no assessment of the government's response or recommendations for further government or congressional action.

Mr. DeWine, one of the lawmakers who requested the report from the federal watchdog agency, said through a spokesman that he is "disappointed with the vagueness of the report.''

"The Toledo Blade has already provided us [in its investigative series on beryllium's health hazards] with the information that the report presents,'' said Charles Boesel, Mr. DeWine's spokesman.

"It does not provide us with a guide for workers who have been injured. It is a complex issue that spans many years, and we simply need more information.''

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), another lawmaker who requested the GAO report, said "all they did was rehash the history of the use of beryllium and the government's nonresponse."

"We need a compensation program for workers,'' she said.

Miss Kaptur noted that efforts to include a compensation program for workers sickened by exposure to beryllium have been stymied in the U.S. House this year. Instead, House members approved a "sense of Congress" resolution calling for further study of the issue.

The resolution carries no legal weight and does not offer financial help to workers.

Sarah Ogdahl of Ohio Citizen Action, an environmental group pressing for reforms on the beryllium issue, was more blunt in her assessment of the GAO report.

"This has not been an investigation. It is a wash,'' Ms. Ogdahl added.

Beryllium is a hard, lightweight, gray metallic element that is used by the federal government in nuclear weapons, missiles, and jet fighters. People exposed to beryllium dust often develop a lung illness called chronic beryllium disease, which is often fatal and has no cure.

Researchers estimate 1,200 Americans have contracted beryllium disease, and hundreds have died, making it the No. 1 illness directly caused by America's Cold War buildup.

A 22-month investigation by the Blade showed that, for more than 40 years, the U.S. government and the beryllium industry have knowingly allowed thousands of workers, including those at the local beryllium plant outside Elmore, to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.

After the Blade's series was published last year, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a rule that established new worker safety controls. The agency also proposed legislation to create a compensation plan for Energy Department workers affected by chronic beryllium disease.

Mr. DeWine and Sen. George Voinovich (R., O.) have proposed a slightly different plan to provide federal compensation to Energy Department contract workers afflicted with occupational illnesses resulting from their unknown exposure to hazardous or radioactive materials.

Congress has yet to act on either proposal.

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