U.S. begins second beryllium probe
July 28, 1999
WASHINGTON - Congress has begun a second investigation into whether the federal government is to blame for hundreds of workers becoming ill from exposure to beryllium, a metal critical to the production of nuclear bombs and other weapons.
The House subcommittee on national security, veterans affairs, and international relations is gathering information about what government officials knew of the dangers, when they knew it, and what they told workers.
Specifically, the panel wants to know:
"So many people have suffered and are still suffering," U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Cleveland, said yesterday.
"The public needs to understand exactly how this whole series of circumstances came about and how it was essentially hidden from public view until the Toledo Blade pushed it into public awareness," said Mr. Kucinich, a member of the government reform committee, which oversees the subcommittee.
In March, Pennsylvania Rep. Paul Kanjorski, responding to a series of articles in The Blade, asked the subcommittee to hold hearings on the government's role in the beryllium illnesses. The panel has not scheduled hearings. But it did start an investigation, sending fact-finding letters to the Energy Department, the Defense Department, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"The subcommittee is examining the federal government's use of beryllium in weapons and munitions, the known health hazards associated with the use of this product, and government efforts to inform and protect beryllium workers with safety standards, enforcement rules, and employee information," subcommittee chairman Christopher Shays (R., Conn.) wrote in the June 30 letter.
Neither the panel nor Mr. Shays's office would comment.
"It's the subcommittee's policy not to comment on an ongoing investigation," said Eric Friedman, Mr. Shays's press secretary.
The investigation is in addition to a beryllium inquiry by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Mr. Friedman would not say why the GAO and the subcommittee are investigating, but congressional sources say multiple inquiries are not unusual.
One congressional staffer welcomed the second investigation.
"The more the merrier. The more focus that is on beryllium, the more likely [legislation to help victims] is going to pass."
Mr. Kanjorski, a Democrat who has beryllium victims in his district in eastern Pennsylvania, applauded Mr. Shays for opening an inquiry.
"His actions demonstrate continued and growing bipartisan congressional interest in looking at past government involvement in the beryllium industry," he said.
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal that has been used by the government in weapon systems for more than 50 years. When manufactured or machined, the metal produces a toxic dust that often causes an incurable, chronic lung disease.
An estimated 1,200 workers have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including at least 53 at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.
Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said he was unaware of the investigation but that the company will cooperate.
"Absolutely. That's our practice. Always has been."
Theresa Norgard, a Toledo-area beryllium disease advocate, welcomed the investigation but wonders "if this is just one more way of delaying the process" of enacting laws helping workers.
Her husband, David, who contracted beryllium disease at the Elmore plant, said he hopes Congress holds hearings on the matter.
"I want to be able to speak face-to-face with the bureaucrats," he said.
The Blade's six-part series, published March 28 through April 2, detailed how the U.S. government sacrificed workers' lives for production of beryllium. Among the findings: The government knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium. As a result, dozens contracted beryllium disease, and some died.
In response to the series, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio began gathering congressional support for a GAO investigation. In June, eight members of Congress, led by Mr. DeWine, a Republican, ordered the office to investigate.
The General Accounting Office inquiry will be complete in the fall, spokesman Cleve Corlett said.
The Blade series was instrumental in the Clinton administration recently proposing compensation for beryllium victims. The plan marked the first time the Energy Department publicly acknowledged fault for illnesses among its contract workers.
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