Federal action is pursued for beryllium cases
September 5, 1999
G. Ray Medlin, one of northwest Ohio's top union leaders and economic development officials, said federal authorities should investigate whether criminal racketeering charges should be filed against officials of Brush Wellman and the U.S. Department of Energy for exposing workers to harmful levels of toxic beryllium dust.
Mr. Medlin, chairman of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority's board of directors, said in a letter last week to lawmakers that the actions of federal officials and the beryllium company Brush Wellman "are tantamount to crimes against workers, citizens, and the environment."
"Crimes of this nature," he wrote, "should be subject to a RICO investigation to determine just who the individuals were that authorized these actions and punish those responsible for the conspiracy. No one should ever have to die to keep a job in America."
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute was created primarily to prosecute organized crime figures, but it is also used to fight fraud and racketeering in the business world.
Mr. Medlin, the executive director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Health & Safety Fund of North America, said he sent his letter to U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine (R., O.) and George Voinovich (R., O.) and to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo).
The letter, he said, was prompted by a Blade series this year that detailed how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of toxic dust. As a result of the exposure, many workers developed beryllium disease, a chronic and often-fatal lung condition.
Mr. Medlin wrote that he had a personal stake in the matter: His father, Ray Medlin, Sr., was a contract worker at two local Brush beryllium plants in the 1950s and has had breathing difficulties ever since.
The elder Mr. Medlin, now 77 years old and living in Lake Township, said, "My breathing becomes very labored in exertion and I'm zonkered out." He said that he has not been tested for beryllium disease but is interested in being tested.
Hugh Hanes, Brush Wellman's vice president of government affairs, issued a one-page statement yesterday, lamenting that Mr. Medlin had neglected to contact the firm.
"We would have shown him that the facts of the matter prove absolutely that there was no conspiracy of any kind," Mr. Hanes stated. "They show that Brush Wellman has always tried to deal with the disease based upon the best medical science available at the time."
The Cleveland-based firm, which is America's largest beryllium producer, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has said it goes to great lengths to protect workers and the public from beryllium dust.
"We greatly regret the suffering that any man or woman has endured as a result of chronic beryllium disease," Mr. Hanes said. "We are working night and day to determine its exact cause and to eliminate it once and for all."
In The Blade series, government and industry officials acknowledged that beryllium dust levels were high at some plants, but said that steps were taken to protect workers. And, they said, beryllium facilities with high exposures could not be closed because of national security: Beryllium - a hard, lightweight, gray metallic el ement - was needed to make nuclear bombs and other weapons.
In his letter, Mr. Medlin said: "National security? A more likely explanation is pure and simple greed."
An estimated 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including 53 at Brush's plant outside Elmore. Dozens of others show blood abnormalities - a sign that they may develop the incurable illness. Recent testing of current and former Brush contract workers shows that nine have blood abnormalities.
Mr. Medlin said he briefly worked at Brush's Elmore plant in the 1970s as a contract employee - a construction millwright installing machinery. He said he and other contractors were never warned of the dangers.
"These craftspeople were not mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, or even professional soldiers," he wrote. "They were innocent and trusting workers . . ."
In an interview, Mr. Medlin recalled how when he was 8 years old, growing up in a mobile home in Walbridge, his father would return home from work at Brush covered in dust. The boy and his younger brother would fight over who could remove their father's work boots, unaware that the shoes might be contaminated.
An Energy Department spokeswoman said Friday that she had not seen Mr. Medlin's letter and could not immediately comment.
Miss Kaptur's office said on Friday that the congresswoman had just returned from a trip to the Middle East and was reviewing Mr. Medlin's letter. Calls to Senator DeWine's office on Friday were not returned.
David Bauer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Toledo, said he was unaware of any criminal violations in the beryllium industry. If there were, he said, they would be investigated by an agency such as the FBI. He added that he has not heard any specific allegation against government and beryllium officials that would fall under the RICO statute.
Mr. Medlin's call for action against Brush Wellman is somewhat ironic. He is a longtime board member of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority - an agency that in 1996 helped Brush greatly expand its Elmore plant.
Arguing that 150 jobs were at stake, the port authority put together a $20 million financing package for the expansion. Mr. Medlin was a port board member at the time, as was John Robinson Block, The Blade's co-publisher and editor-in-chief. Mr. Block is no longer on the board.
Mr. Medlin said that when financing was approved, board members knew little of health problems at the Brush plant. "I thought it was a problem in the past," he said, "not one alive and well in the present."
Mr. Medlin said had port board members known more about the illness and Brush's past actions, the financing package would not have sailed through. The board, he said, likely would have demanded that Brush make safety improvements.
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