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Thursday, 10 August 2000

Neighbors want tighter monitoring of beryllium plant near six schools

By Maureen O'Connell

Several South Side residents last night pressed county officials to toughen air quality requirements for a beryllium plant in their neighborhood.

"There are fields around the plant used by children" walking to Los Amigos Elementary School, 2200 E. Drexel Road, said Steve Chernin, who works at a nearby Sunnyside Unified School District campus.

Of Sunnyside High School's track team, he added, "Every day they're running through the beryllium dust."

County officials have pledged to strengthen Brush Wellman's air quality permit by requiring increased documentation of emissions monitoring and maintenance equipment.

Officials from the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality collected comments and questions about the company's permit during a public hearing at Sunnyside High, 1725 E. Bilby Road.

But the Environmental Justice Action Group, a local citizens group that focuses on environmental problems affecting minority neighborhoods, contends that that's not enough protection from beryllium, which can be toxic in the form of a metal powder.

The local group argues that because Brush Wellman, 6100 S. Tucson Blvd., is within a half-mile of six Sunnyside schools, the company should pay for the installation of county air quality monitoring stations at each school. It also wants the county to conduct "frequent and unannounced" inspections and coordinate health screenings.

Pat Birnie, a spokeswoman for the group, said Brush Wellman should be required to cover the costs for treating illnesses such as chronic beryllium disease - a potentially fatal lung ailment that comes from breathing fine particles of the metal.

Kirk Keitherly, general manager of the plant - part of an Ohio-based company that makes electronic parts - said the last "neighborhood" case of chronic beryllium disease near a company plant was recorded about 50 years ago - before federal air quality standards took effect.

Other speakers at the hearing disputed that point. Twenty-five workers at the local plant have developed the disease.

Chernin, who heads the Sunnyside district's association for classified employees - maintenance workers to office personnel - said state and national unions for teachers and other public school employees have passed resolutions calling for a zero-emission standard for beryllium near schools, homes and government buildings.

The Environmental Justice Action Group also urged the county to halt that emission.

The Environmental Protection Agency now limits beryllium emission to 10 grams a day. County regulations may be more stringent than federal regulations in a case of "peculiar" circumstances, Birnie said.

She asserted that the proximity of the schools creates such circumstances. In addition, she said the county should consider that residents of the largely Hispanic South Side have dealt with other environmental hazards, such as TCE, or trichloroethylene. The industrial solvent and suspected carcinogen seeped into ground water as a result of dumping in the airport area for about three decades, beginning in the 1950s.

Keitherly said the health of Brush Wellman employees is a top priority, but he is unaware of technology that could meet a zero-emission mandate.

Since the local plant opened in 1980, it has not been cited for violating federal air quality standards.

Under the terms of the expiring permit, which has been in effect since the early 1990s, the county conducts one unannounced site visit each year and observes an annual emissions test performed by a firm hired by Brush Wellman.

Frances Dominguez, a spokeswoman for the county department, said allowing companies to monitor themselves is a standard practice around the country because local governments cannot afford the costs.

* Contact Maureen O'Connell at 434-4076 or at

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