Beryllium aid package gets boost
June 9, 2000
The U.S. Senate yesterday took a big step toward helping scores of injured beryllium workers in the Toledo area and nationwide.
Legislation to compensate victims was attached to the defense authorization bill in the Senate, increasing the likelihood that some kind of benefit plan will become law.
"We've crossed a major hurdle," said Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, who has been pushing for victim compensation.
Richard Miller, a union policy analyst in Washington, agreed: "There has never been a year in which the defense authorization bill has not been signed by the president. So [the compensation plan] is attached to a bill that has a very high probability of being signed.''
But he said that the nation's leading beryllium producer, Brush Wellman, Inc., which operates a plant near Elmore, vigorously fought the compensation plan in recent days.
"The most difficult struggle in securing justice for beryllium workers was the fight that Brush Wellman put up to cut off their rights to ever have a day in court,'' said Mr. Miller of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union.
He said Brush Wellman used "aggressive lobbying tactics" in an effort to get language in the compensation plan that would bar workers from suing the company. Brush has been approaching senators sympathetic to its views, he said, and "basically using the power that their friendly senators have to try to leverage their position in the negotiations, and they are quite savvy at doing this.''
But the effort failed, Mr. Miller said. The compensation program gives workers the choice of accepting compensation or suing. But workers would have less time to decide whether to sue.
At least 75 current or former workers of Brush Wellman's Elmore plant have contracted beryllium disease, an often-fatal lung illness caused by the metal's toxic dust. The metal has long been used in nuclear bombs and other weapons.
In a written statement, Brush Wellman attorney Thomas Clare said the company supports legislation to compensate victims.
He added: "Brush Wellman believes that the limited public and private resources should be focused on worker benefits and further research into prevention and treatment of the disease - and not diverted and diffused through the litigation process to become a source of revenue for lawyers.''
The beryllium company, he wrote, "always has acted appropriately and forthrightly in availing itself of the political process on these issues, and any assertion to the contrary (or suggestion that the company engaged in 'aggressive' lobbying techniques or improper political maneuvering) is just plain wrong.''
Last month, Senator Voinovich introduced a bill to compensate beryllium victims. Voinovich spokesman Mike Dawson said the Senate plan as it stands now would cover Brush Wellman workers who have beryllium disease. They would receive medical benefits and their choice of lost wages or a one-time payment of $200,000.
Also covered: nuclear plant workers harmed by exposure to radiation and silica. Families of deceased victims would be covered as well.
The House version of the defense bill does not include the compensation program, whose fate congressional negotiators would have to decide. Also, lawmakers have not set aside any money for the program, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Frankly,'' Senator Voinovich said, "if this thing becomes law I will put it down on my list of one of the most important pieces of legislation that I had anything to do with.''
Added Energy Secretary Bill Richardson: "The Senate today furthered efforts to right the wrongs of the Cold War and get sick workers and their survivors the help they have long deserved."
But U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, said the Senate plan falls short because it focuses only on workers associated with Energy Department facilities. She said Defense Department contract workers should be covered, as well as everyone harmed by Brush's Elmore plant.
"Anybody who worked in or near that plant who dealt with beryllium and got sick has a right to coverage,'' she said. She added that she thinks Brush workers could benefit from union representation on such issues. "One of the reasons that the Brush Wellman workers at Elmore are shortchanged is because they don't have a union.''
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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