Beryllium-plan vote advances

May 16, 2000

COLUMBUS - The U.S. Senate may vote in a few weeks on a plan to compensate ailing weapon workers and others who have been harmed while building and maintaining America's nuclear arsenal, including Toledo-area workers harmed by the metal beryllium, U.S. Senate Mike DeWine (R., O.) said yesterday.

Mr. DeWine and other backers of the proposal will try to wrap it into the Department of Defense authorization bill. If that does not work, efforts will be made to attach the compensation plan to other legislation by the end of this year, he said.

"We now know that as a result of Cold War efforts, the government - yes, our federal government - allowed thousands of workers at its facilities across the country to be exposed to poisonous materials, such as beryllium dust, plutonium, and silicon," said Mr. DeWine, who presided at a field hearing of the Senate subcommittee on employment, safety, and training.

Under a bill introduced last week by U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., O.), workers and others harmed while building and maintaining America's nuclear arsenal would receive health benefits and their choice of lost wages or a one-time payment of $200,000. It would cover workers at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore, where at least 75 people have contracted a chronic lung disease from the metal's toxic dust.

The hearing included two panel discussions on how Mr. Voinovich's bill and a competing proposal from the Clinton administration would aid weapons workers, including those at the Department of Energy's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the Mound facility in Miamisburg, O.

Workers at those plants were exposed to extremely toxic materials, such as plutonium, often without their knowledge.

Last year, The Blade published a six-part series that exposed a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the U.S. government and the beryllium industry - wrongdoing that caused the injuries and deaths of dozen of workers producing the strategic metal.

Hugh Hanes, vice president of governmental affairs for Brush Wellman, told Mr. DeWine yesterday that the company supports a bill that "provides appropriate benefits for workers" with beryllium disease or sensitivity to beryllium, a metal that has been used in nuclear bombs and other weapons.

"The final legislation should provide expeditious benefits for all covered employees as their exclusive remedy without the expense, delay, or uncertainty of litigation," he said.

Mr. Hanes declined to elaborate after the hearing, referring questions to Brush attorney Thomas Clare. Mr. Clare said the company didn't have any additional comments.

Mr. DeWine said Mr. Voinovich's bill is better than the plan crafted by the Department of Energy because it would provide federal compensation to workers who contracted diseases other than beryllium disease or radiogenic cancers.

DOE wants to set up an office of worker advocacy, which would assist workers with state claims, Mr. DeWine said.

"If DOE's experts determine that a worker's illness is caused by his employment, it will instruct its contractor in whatever state the claim was filed not to oppose the claim. I believe that such a worker advocacy office would create a disparity in benefits, because each state offers different benefits packages," he said.

Under the DOE's plan, those with beryllium disease or who have been sensitized to beryllium would have the option of medical benefits, lost wages, and job retraining; or a $100,000 lump sum with no health care benefits - provided they are diagnosed by the time the new law takes effect, said Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union.

The lump sum option would not be available for those who are diagnosed after the law takes effect, Mr. Miller said.

The head of the Toledo office of Ohio Citizen Action, a statewide consumer and environmental group, said it was "unjust" for a Brush Wellman official to take part in the panel discussion without someone with beryllium disease having the chance to testify.

"[Brush] is a perpetrator of the disease and should not have a say in the payment plan," said Sarah Ogdahl, of Ohio Citizen Action.

Mr. DeWine said his office lined up a person with beryllium disease from the Toledo area, but the person canceled last week.

Jennifer Morog, who said her father contracted beryllium disease after working in the Brush Beryllium plant in Lorain, O., in the late 1940s, was scheduled to testify.But Ms. Morog, who lives in Erie County, said she had car problems and could not attend.

Ms. Morog, 53, said her father, Howard Bernsee, worked at the Lorain plant for 10 days when an explosion occurred at the plant. Soon after, he was diagnosed with beryllium disease, she said.

"I vividly remember wanting to help him, but as a child, not knowing what to do, so I would get up and stand next to him and hold his hand until the episode would pass and his breathing would return to normal," she said.

Mr. Bernsee died in 1971. Ms. Morog said she hopes the federal government will compensate ailing weapons workers.

"These are people's lives," she said.

Meanwhile, members of the Coalition for a Safe Environment turned up at Senator DeWine's Toledo office at the Ohio Building on Madison Avenue yesterday morning to deliver a statement asking that the senator convene a hearing in Elmore on the proposed federal compensation plans.

Terry Lodge, a Holland attorney and coalition spokesman, said his group is upset that no Brush-Wellman workers suffering from beryllium disease were present at the Columbus hearing and that public comments were not allowed.

"Hearings regarding compensation for those victims should take place where the victims can attend and participate," the group said in its statement to Senator DeWine.

The group, a coalition of 10 environmental organizations, criticized Senator DeWine for supporting a $100,000 cap on compensation payments and asked for the state to pay for beryllium testing of residents who live near the Brush-Wellman plant in Elmore.

"It's far from an intelligent way of going about it," Mr. Lodge said.

Staff writer George J. Tanber contributed to this report.

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