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Defense rests its case in lawsuit over beryllium

By Ann Imse, News Staff Writer

Beryllium producer Brush Wellman Inc. ended its defense Wednesday without confronting evidence that it colluded with the federal government in the late 1970s to stop OSHA's attempt to tighten safety standards for beryllium.

Some 32 people with chronic beryllium disease and their spouses have sued Brush Wellman, claiming it is responsible for causing the illness, which saps the ability to breathe. They say the company conspired with the federal government to conceal the dangers of beryllium because it was needed to make nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.

The plaintiffs say Brush Wellman knew workers who breathed less than the federal standard of 2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air were becoming ill.

They also say the company conspired to prevent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from raising the standard in the 1970s by threatening to halt the supply of beryllium to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The only other producer had just dropped out of the business.

Defense attorneys said Brush Wellman had good reason to believe the existing safety standard prevented beryllium disease. They also tried to shift blame to Rocky Flats, saying it allowed its workers to breathe amounts of beryllium higher than the standard.

The first part of the case, determining Brush Wellman's liability for the first eight plaintiffs, will go to final arguments today in Jefferson County District Court. Damages, if any, will be determined in a second phase.

On Wednesday, the defense read to the jury a 1984 Department of Energy inspection of the Rocky Flats beryllium shop that found inadequate ventilation, poor housekeeping, erratic training and respirators fitted every four years instead of yearly as required.

Fifteen of 17 test cloths smeared against walls found excessive amounts of beryllium, the report said.

Defense attorneys also tried to show that the plaintiffs in this first phase -- four Rocky Flats beryllium disease victims and their spouses -- failed to meet Colorado's two-year statute of limitations. They were diagnosed, and filed workers' compensation cases against Rocky Flats many years before the case against Brush Wellman was filed in 1996.

June 21, 2001

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