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February 18, 2001

 





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Article published February 18, 2001


Brush douses fire; EPA smolders
Handling of accidents perturbs state agency

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


ELMORE - The second accident in three days occurred yesterday at the Brush Wellman plant here, this time a fire inside the facility.

And like Thursday’s accident, when a chemical reaction in a 55-gallon barrel caused a 100-foot-wide plume of beryllium-tainted smoke to waft through a residential area, the company did not immediately notify the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Yesterday’s fire occurred at 3:15 p.m. near a melting furnace, where a slight crack allowed molten metal to drip on floor paint, said Larry Chako, Brush environmental and utility services manager.

"It was just a tiny fire. It was out in a matter of minutes," he said.

The plant’s emergency response team extinguished the blaze.

The Ottawa County sheriff’s office put Elmore volunteer firefighters on standby in case the fire spread.

Workers were evacuated temporarily from the building where the fire occurred because many metals heated at the plant contain trace amounts of beryllium - a metal linked to a deadly lung disease.

If any beryllium was released, it was quickly trapped by the building’s air filters. Workers were sent back in when the blaze was extinguished because indoor air tests showed no beryllium present, Mr. Chako said.

State environmental regulators view the two events as proof that the company has gotten lackadaisical about communicating with them.

Jeff Steers, assistant chief of the Ohio EPA’s district office in Bowling Green, said he plans to take up the matter with Brush.

Even if no laws were broken, the company needs to improve its notification procedures and open up access to agency inspectors, Mr. Steers said.

On both occasions, Brush’s primary contact has been with the sheriff’s office.

The company believes it is obligated to call state and federal regulators only when there is a "reportable quantity" of a substance released, Mr. Chako said.

For smaller incidents, the company contacts the sheriff’s office under a countywide emergency plan, which calls for the sheriff’s office to notify the Ohio EPA and other agencies, Mr. Chako said.

Mr. Steers said the company, to be a good corporate citizen, should take it upon itself to notify the Ohio EPA whenever there is an accident - regardless how big or small.

"We are charged with protecting human health and the environment," he said. "We’ll make the call on when we should respond."

Regulators are perturbed about the company’s decision to limit access to one of their inspectors Thursday, Mr. Steers said.

Mike Czeczele, supervisor of the Ohio EPA’s emergency and remedial response unit in Bowling Green, responded to the accident - but found out about it only because he happened to be listening to a police and fire scanner, said Heather Lauer, Ohio EPA spokeswoman.

Mr. Czeczele, a volunteer for the Elmore fire department, is trained to use a self-contained breathing device, Mr. Steers said.

Brush allowed him onto its property, but did not let him into the contained area where the chemicals were vaporizing. The company claimed safety reasons: Mr. Czeczele did not have his own respirator and did not have medical clearance to use one from the company, Mr. Chako said.

That explanation didn’t sit well with Mr. Steers, one of Mr. Czeczele’s supervisors.

"There’s still unanswered questions how all this happened," Mr. Steers said. "We want to make sure there’s not a repeat of this."

Beryllium is a metal used to make nuclear weapons.

Seven homes southwest of the plant were evacuated as a precaution after Thursday’s event, because of trace amounts of beryllium in the plume. Exposure to even small amounts of beryllium dust can cause a chronic, fatal lung disease.

Officials are still trying to figure out what caused the chemical reaction. Test results on the container are expected to be completed tomorrow, Mr. Chako said.

"We still don’t know why [the 55-gallon drum] did what it did," he said.


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