Forum draws vocal crowd in Elmore

November 18, 1999

ELMORE - Environmentalists told an overflowing and contentious crowd here last night that workers and residents should demand that the Brush Wellman beryllium company stop making people sick.

"No one has to get chronic beryllium disease. No one has to die from chronic beryllium disease. This is a man-made disease,'' activist Theresa Norgard told a packed public forum on the hazards of beryllium.

Several Brush Wellman workers shot back by saying the firm was doing its best and that the activists did not have all of the facts. "Don't listen to a radical group,'' said Gary Donnell, a Brush maintenance worker.

About 150 residents, workers, and activists crowded into a stuffy Elmore Community Center, forcing fire officials to turn away 40 people at the door. The crowd was split between Brush workers, some wearing buttons saying "We Support Brush Wellman,'' and young activists with signs saying "No Risk Is Acceptable'' and "Hundreds of Workers Sick & Dying: Enough Is Enough.''

Toledo Blade photo by Darrel Ellis
Courtney Christenson lets her sign do the talking at last night's forum.
(Toledo Blade photo by Darrel Ellis)
At times, the event was emotional. When Brush worker Louie Garcia suggested that some employees have been harmed because they had not followed safety rules, a tearful Jill Rodenhauser shouted out: "My dad did not give himself [beryllium disease]. Brush gave my dad [beryllium disease].''

The forum was primarily sponsored by Ohio Citizen Action, the state's largest environmental activist organization.

No one spoke officially for Brush. But in a prepared statement sent to The Blade, the Cleveland-based company said that Ohio Citizen Action has made several misleading statements about the firm in the past, and "Brush Wellman has seen no evidence that today's Ohio Citizen Action event will provide a fair forum.''

Ohio Citizen Action has been pressing for safety reforms at Brush's plant outside Elmore since The Blade published in March an investigative series on the beryllium industry. Based on thousands of court and recently declassified government records, the series documented how Brush has overexposed workers to toxic beryllium dust, misled employees about the dangers, and covered up its checkered past.

Ohio Citizen Action has asked for a meeting with Brush to discuss health concerns, but the company has declined. So the activists have been going door to door through northern Ohio, circulating petitions, and soliciting letters of support.

Earlier yesterday, Sarah Ogdahl, program director for Ohio Citizen Action's Toledo office, said some residents and Brush workers think the environmentalists are trying to shut the plant. But she said that is not true.

"Our goal is to reduce pollution and reduce beryllium exposure inside and outside the plant,'' she said.

Ms. Ogdahl said a transcript of last night's forum would be made and distributed to lawmakers and other officials.

Toledo Blade photo by Darrel Ellis
Hazel Kohbarger, a supporter of Brush, listens to the discussion.
(Toledo Blade photo by Darrel Ellis)
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal whose dust can cause an incurable, often-fatal lung illness. An estimated 1,200 workers have contracted the illness nationwide since the 1940s, including 65 current or former workers at the Elmore plant.

Ms. Ogdahl said a key issue is blood testing of residents living near the plant to determine whether they have been harmed. Brush has offered blood tests to its employees but not to residents and many contract workers.

Brush has repeatedly said blood testing of residents is unnecessary because there is no evidence of harm.

But no study has been conducted. 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.

Others who spoke last night:

  • John Cayton, a Brush environmental engineer, who said activists were spreading misinformation and perhaps needlessly frightening residents.

  • Glenn Petersen, 29, a former Brush furnace operator who detailed several alleged accidents at the plant. Federal authorities are investigating whether Brush broke whistleblower laws when it fired Mr. Petersen in October.

  • Gary Renwand, a 61-year-old from Oak Harbor, O., who contracted beryllium disease at the plant. He said: "If people could just see how much suffering people go through, they would have a different outlook on this."

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