Lemke's death invigorates beryllium crusaders

August 22, 1999

Local advocates for beryllium disease victims say the death of their leader will not slow their fight for improved worker and community safeguards.

In fact, they say they may draw strength from the loss and step up their efforts.

On Wednesday, Butch Lemke, a 58-year-old Elmore resident, died after a long battle with beryllium disease, a chronic lung illness caused by exposure to the metal's dust. Scores of workers locally and nationally have contracted the disease, and Mr. Lemke spent years trying to raise awareness of the hazards. He was buried yesterday.

"We obviously lost a major fighter in the force," said Sarah Ogdahl, local program director for Ohio Citizen Action, the state's largest environmental activist group. "But I think more people will rise up and do more - and do it for Butch."

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who has been pushing for legislation to aid beryllium victims, said in a statement that Mr. Lemke "epitomized strength, dignity, and courage. His work championing the rights of those afflicted with chronic beryllium disease will be his living legacy."

Mr. Lemke was diagnosed with beryllium disease after working nine years at the Brush Wellman, Inc., plant outside Elmore, where he made beryllium for America's weapons program. He became an outspoken critic of the company and was featured in a recent Blade investigative series on the beryllium industry.

On Thursday, friends, family, and fellow beryllium victims gathered at Crosser Funeral Home in Elmore to pay respects to the man who spent the last 15 years unable to breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank.

"I hope more people become aware of the problem and come forward now," said beryllium victim Bob Szilagyi, leaning on his cane, his portable oxygen tank at his side.

Nearby, Gary Renwand, another beryllium victim on oxygen, said advocates will continue to push for safety reforms, such as new equipment to limit the amount of beryllium dust at the Elmore plant. "We're going to do it for Butch more than anything," he said.

Among the flowers and plants at the funeral home: a 5-foot-tall fig tree from Brush Wellman.

Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said: "We're obviously greatly saddened by his death."

The Cleveland company is America's leading beryllium producer, and the 780-employee Elmore facility is the nation's largest beryllium plant.

The company reports that 142 of its workers have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including 53 at the Elmore plant. Many others have blood abnormalities and may develop the illness.

Records show that beryllium disease has contributed to the deaths of at least 33 Brush workers and neighbors since the 1940s. In all, experts estimate 1,200 people nationwide have contracted the illness, including many workers in the defense industry.

"We're not just talking about numbers; we're talking about human life," Ohio Citizen Action's Ms. Ogdahl said.

Her group has been pressing Brush to meet with local environmentalists to discuss how to stop the injuries and deaths, but the firm has declined.

In March, The Blade began a six-day series detailing how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. This occurred year after year, all so the government could have an ample supply of the strong, lightweight metal for nuclear bombs and other weapons.

The series sparked numerous reforms and reactions, including two congressional investigations.

Victim advocate Theresa Norgard said she hopes people not only take notice of Mr. Lemke's death, but act on it.

"I don't understand how people in the community could lose someone who really is a member of the community and not do anything to ensure that it does not keep happening," she said. "How many people do you have to lose before you write letters or speak up and say, 'This is wrong'?"

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