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Environmentalists seek new beryllium safeguards

June 16, 1999

Ohio Citizen Action, the state's largest environmental activist group, is calling for the Brush Wellman beryllium firm to take extra steps to protect workers and the public from toxic beryllium dust, including offering free medical exams to people living near the company's plant outside Elmore.

"It's our major focus in northwest Ohio,'' Ohio Citizen Action Executive Director Sandy Buchanan said yesterday.

Among the improvements the group wants:

  • Less beryllium dust inside and outside the Elmore plant.

  • More air monitoring stations near the plant.

  • A warning system to notify neighbors of accidents, spills, and explosions.

    Last week, Brush Wellman announced several major changes to protect workers, including requiring some to wear respirators more often.

    But Ohio Citizen Action, a nonprofit with offices in five cities and 150,000 members statewide, said that is not enough.

    "Wearing respirators all the time in the plant is not an effective way of reducing the pollution,'' said Sarah Ogdahl, director of the group's Toledo office. "We believe that there needs to be some engineering changes.''

    She said her group has been going door to door in northwest Ohio the last few weeks, talking with residents about health issues at Brush Wellman and encouraging them to write letters expressing their concerns. On Monday, the group mailed 700 citizen letters to the Cleveland-based company, Ms. Ogdahl said.

    In addition, Ohio Citizen Action and two other local groups - the Coalition for a Safe Environment and the Coalition for Safe Energy - sent a letter to Brush Wellman last week, saying they had formed a group of environmentalists, residents, and workers, and that the group wants to meet with the company.

    Brush Wellman spokesman Hugh Hanes said he would not comment on Ohio Citizen Action's concerns because he has not seen details in writing. He said the company is preparing a response to the request for a meeting.

    Ohio Citizen Action said its actions were sparked by the recent Blade series "Deadly Alliance." The articles detailed how the U.S. government and Brush Wellman risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly allowing them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. Many of these workers became ill, and some died.

    Beryllium is a hard, lightweight metal used in the defense, auto, and electronics industries. When the metal is manufactured or machined, a toxic dust is created that can cause a potentially fatal lung disease.

    An estimated 1,200 workers have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s - at least 53 at Brush's Elmore plant, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.

    Numerous people living near beryllium plants in Lorain, O., and Reading, Pa., were diagnosed as having the disease in the 1940s and 1950s, even though they had never worked at the facilities. No neighbor of the Elmore plant has been diagnosed as having the disease, but no study has been conducted.

    Ohio Citizen Action said it is time for Brush to test Elmore plant neighbors for the disease.

    "There are a number of people that could have been exposed and just don't know it,'' Ms. Ogdahl said. "It's our belief that Brush Wellman should take the initiative and pay for this testing.''

    Blood tests can determine whether someone has had a reaction to beryllium dust. Further tests are required to determined whether someone has beryllium disease.

    The 650-employee Elmore plant is in rural Ottawa County, with few homes nearby, and Brush Wellman maintains that blood testing of residents is not needed.

    The company monitors the air around the plant by using several sampling stations. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency records show that the plant has exceeded monthly air pollution limits for beryllium dust nine times in the last 25 years.

    Theresa Norgard, a local beryllium victims advocate, said she favors testing of neighbors, "but I would hope that some independent agency would test the neighbors and not Brush Wellman.''

    Ohio Citizen Action wants the company to implement a warning system, perhaps sirens, to alert neighbors of accidents that could release beryllium dust.

    "When you are dealing with highly toxic substances," Ms. Ogdahl said, "people need to know that they may need to close their windows or doors to protect themselves. Finding out hours or even days later is not protective.''

    Regarding other pollutants, Ohio Citizen Action wants Brush Wellman to clean up tainted groundwater on the plant site. Ohio EPA records show this problem has existed for 17 years.

    The environmental group wants Brush to improve monitoring of pollutants in the adjacent Portage River.

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