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Tucson, Arizona  Friday, 10 November 2000

Beryllium plant cited for dryer vent

By Enric Volante

Pima County officials cited a southside beryllium plant for installing and venting a clothes dryer to the outside air.

The dryer laundered worker uniforms tainted with the toxic metallic dust at Brush Wellman Inc., 6100 S. Tucson Blvd.

A plant official yesterday blamed the failure to report the installation and operation of the dryer on an administrative error and said there was no threat to public health.

But the violation notice comes as neighborhood activists are pushing Pima County to impose stronger monitoring requirements as it renews the plant's emissions permit.

Beryllium is chiefly a threat to workers inside the plant. At least 25 workers exposed to beryllium dust since the plant opened in 1980 have contracted chronic beryllium disease, a lung ailment that can slowly smother its victims.

Blood tests on at least a dozen others have shown they developed a beryllium allergy that often precedes the disease.

The violation notice issued Monday stemmed from a surprise inspection on Sept. 20 and 21.

An inspector from the county Department of Environmental Quality asked whether the two clothes dryers in the laundry room were vented into the plant's pollution control system and was told they were, county records show.

But the inspector found one dryer vented directly to the roof.

An investigation showed Brush Wellman's most recent permit application described both dryers as being vented to the dust control system that filters air in the plant before sending it out through a 60-foot stack.

Steve Mattix, the plant's director of environmental quality, said the company planned to vent both dryers through the system, but the pilot light on one kept blowing out.

He said Brush Wellman wasn't trying to conceal anything when it neglected to update its permit application to show that it ultimately vented that dryer through the roof instead of through the pollution-control stack.

"What happened was basically an administrative error on our part," Mattix said.

An annual stack test last November showed the plant stack emitting nearly one-hundredth of a gram of beryllium a day - well within the federal limit of 10 grams.

Tests last May on the clothes dryer vent showed it would add a barely perceptible amount to the total emissions, still well within the federal limit, Mattix said.

The dryer is now being vented inside the plant after running through a newly installed filter, he said.

DEQ spokeswoman Frances Dominguez said the county is waiting for more information from the company before considering potential penalties. Mattix said county officials have not mentioned any possible fines.

Pat Birnie, of the Environmental Justice Action Group, said the violation underscores the need to further restrict emissions.

A dryer probably emits very small amounts, she acknowledged, but research suggests the smallest beryllium particles are the most dangerous to inhale.

"So even though it's only a tiny amount in quantity, that's no excuse," Birnie said.

Last month, President Clinton signed legislation to provide health care and a $150,000 lump sum payment to sick employees of Brush Wellman and other government contractors.

Federal officials acknowledged this year that the Energy and Defense departments sometimes put weapons production ahead of worker safety in the Cold War rush to make nuclear weapons.

* Contact Enric Volante at 807-7790 or volante@azstarnet.com

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