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Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Big crowd hears Brush Wellman safety concerns

Staff writer

GENOA -- A standing room only crowd Tuesday night weighed in on what they thought needed to be done to protect the safety of workers and residents near the Elmore Brush Wellman plant.

Brush Wellman processes beryllium, a metal that in dust form can cause those sensitive to it to develop chronic berylliosis disease.

The meeting, held by the non-profit group Ohio Citizen Action, had several purposes -- to inform the public about the disease, to get input on what measures residents would like to see taken to improve safety, and to encourage residents to sign up for a federal exposure investigation.

Brush Wellman Spokesman Pat Carpenter said this morning the Ohio Citizen Action is an "agitator" that comes into town to "monger fear" unnecessarily among residents.

"What I think about the meeting is that it's another example of Ohio Citizen Action, which is an out-of-town activist group, trying to malign the good name of Brush Wellman by misstating the facts," he said. "I think they do a real disservice to Brush Wellman and a real disservice to the community."

Carpenter was not at the meeting, but Brush manager Larry Chako was there.

Carpenter added that his company is interested in finding answers about CBD, but wants a "well thought-out and properly constructed scientific review."

He said there is not documentation of anyone living near the Brush Wellman plant who did not work there contracting CBD.

Several people at Tuesday night's meeting in the Genoa Public Library have been diagnosed with the disease, and spoke up about what they'd like to see done. For example, residents wanted independent testing of air, soil and water around the plant to see if there are any contaminants.

Mike Czeczele of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said his agency has been splitting the testing of nine residential wells with Brush Wellman, and all tests turned up negative for beryllium.

In April, he continued, Brush and the Ohio EPA will open the testing to other organic compounds, which have been found under the Brush facility, to ensure none have migrated any farther.

Residents again, as they have at past meetings, expressed distrust of Brush Wellman and the Ohio EPA, saying they would prefer outside testing.

Bernadette Eriksen, who has been outspoken during many of the meetings, added that she is interested in seeing an evacuation plan for area residents in case of a release or emergency at the plant.

Fred Petersen of the Ottawa County Emergency Management Agency explained the procedure for various situations at Brush Wellman are available at the courthouse.

During the course of the two-hour meeting, residents brought up several other points, such as insurance deficits for getting blood tests to diagnose chronic beryllium disorder, the shortages of the blood test itself and other medical concerns.

Dr. Kathleen Fagan, an expert on work-related toxic exposure out of Lorain, was at the meeting to speak about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of CBD and take related questions.

Fagan also is on the board of directors for Ohio Citizen Action and is a professor at Case Western Reserve.

"We don't know how to cure it, so the most important thing is to try to prevent it," she told the audience of about 50.

The disease can take a long time to develop, sometimes as much as 20 to 30 years after the initial exposure, and doesn't occur in everyone exposed.

For example, one study showed only 5 percent of workers exposed contracted the disease, while in another study 38 percent had CBD.

She stressed that beryllium doesn't seem to absorb through the stomach lining or the skin well, so the main concern is breathing the dust.

"In most cases in toxic exposure, the more exposure the more likely you are to get the disease," she said. "In beryllium, that doesn't always seem to be the case, which has been confusing to scientists."

Some residents were encouraged by Tuesday's meeting, saying it's a start in the right direction, while others said it was the same thing that is said every meeting.

"I've been to all the meetings, and it's about the same place," said Wayne Lemke after the meeting.

Lemke delivered gas and kerosene to the plant for more than 20 years, and said he was diagnosed with asthmatic bronchitis. He took the blood test once to determine if he had CBD, but it was negative.

"I was in there every week, sometimes twice a week," he said during the meeting.

He said later he wanted to see more safety requirements to protect workers and residents, and more testing to ensure the air isn't contaminated.

Fremonter Mike Bauer worked in the plant doing maintenance for five years before leaving in 1994, and he was diagnosed last spring with CBD.

"I would have liked to have seen more people here," he said after the meeting. "The community needs to take an active part, because it affects them."

He felt the meeting was progress, though, and that Ohio Citizen Action and the local residents should push for tougher safety standards.

"I did everything I was supposed to, I wore all the safety equipment, and I still have it," he said.