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Tucson, Arizona  Tuesday, 14 August 2001

Beryllium firm agrees to pay $145,000 fine

By Mitch Tobin

Beryllium manufacturer Brush Wellman said Monday that it will pay a $145,000 fine for violating air quality regulations at its controversial plant on Tucson's South Side.

The agreement between the Ohio-based company and Pima County stems from a September 2000 inspection that revealed a clothes dryer was illegally venting air to the outside.

The dryer laundered worker uniforms tainted with toxic beryllium dust.

Company officials say the venting of the clothes dryer was due to an "administrative error" and posed no risk to the public. They say air tests on the dryer vent didn't detect any beryllium.

County regulators agree that the public's health wasn't jeopardized and say the problem was fixed.

Some people who work with beryllium are at risk of getting sick from breathing particles of the gray metal, which is prized for its lightweight strength and conductivity.

At least 27 former employees of the Brush Ceramic Products plant, 6100 S. Tucson Blvd., have contracted chronic beryllium disease, an incurable and potentially fatal illness that slowly suffocates its victims.

Public health experts say that since emissions standards were adopted in 1949, cases of beryllium disease in neighborhoods surrounding plants have virtually disappeared.

A 1999 Arizona Daily Star investigation found that Brush Wellman moved the most dangerous part of its beryllium business to Tucson just as it helped kill a federal safety plan that could have reduced the hazard to workers.

Brush Wellman's activities were also scrutinized that year in investigations by the Toledo (Ohio) Blade and ABC's "20/20" TV program, which concluded the U.S. government knowingly risked the lives of thousands of workers in defense work with beryllium.

Kirk Keithly, Brush Ceramics Products president and general manager, said in a statement Monday that "there has never been a concern about us violating emission standards."

"We're still emitting at a level that's a fraction of what we're permitted to discharge, a level that 50 years of data shows is safe. Protecting the health of our employees and neighbors is our highest priority."

The plant's neighbors live in a predominantly Hispanic and economically disadvantaged area that already has suffered the ravages of the ground-water contaminant TCE, a solvent used by local aircraft companies.

Many neighbors have criticized Brush and called for stricter monitoring of its air and soil since seven schools are within a mile radius of the plant.

But extensive testing of the soil in the neighborhood done by Pima County and the Sunnyside Unified School District hasn't found beryllium elevated above natural background levels.

South Side activist Rose Augustine said she was "shocked" that Brush was fined at all, since previous problems "have been swept under the rug." But she said the fine was still "peanuts."

"I wonder how much they would've charged them if they were in a community up in the Northeast Side of town. It would have been two or three times what they're charging on the South Side," said Augustine, president of Tucsonans for a Clean Environment.

Kathi Lawrence, field services manager for Pima County's Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency used federal guidelines in determining the fine. Those policies consider, among other things, a violator's ability to pay, its cooperation in the case and the severity of the infraction.

* Contact Mitch Tobin at 573-4185 or mtobin@azstarnet.com.

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