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February 16, 2001


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Article published February 16, 2001

Beryllium dust is released into residential site
Emergency crews evacuate workers, area homeowners

The roads near the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore are closed after the release of the smoke. THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY


ELMORE - Beryllium dust escaped from the Brush Wellman plant and into a residential area yesterday when something sparked a chemical reaction in a 55-gallon drum containing beryllium, forcing emergency crews to move workers and homeowners in the path of a smoke plume.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and state health officials said residents were in little danger and that any traces of the beryllium likely dissipated by the afternoon.

There were no apparent injuries in the accident at the plant, about three miles east of here and 20 miles southeast of Toledo.

A heat-based chemical reaction in the drum sparked the release of the smoke cloud. The drum contained machine "fines," or tiny metal shavings from machine operations, that contained beryllium, according to Larry Chako, the plant’s manager of environmental and utility services. It’s unclear what caused the reaction; officials speculated that it could have been machine oil or something else on the shavings but might not know for several days.

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used to make nuclear weapons. The metal’s dust can cause a chronic, incurable lung disease.

Air levels around the plant late yesterday morning were within standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the OEPA said. Still, the accident alarmed some residents who said they do not want to risk exposure to any levels of beryllium.

"If that wind changes, it’s on me," said Bernadette Eriksen, who lives north of the plant. "We should all be tested. This is the last straw."

Not every neighbor was upset, however. People who live in three of the seven homes southwest of the plant that were evacuated said they did not have problems with Brush Wellman or the way they handled the accident. Residents from the other four homes affected could not be reached for comment.

Brush Wellman officials said they immediately worked to move workers and residents from the plume’s path.

"What we can say is that Brush recognizes this as a serious situation, and we regret any inconvenience to the community," Brush spokesman Patrick Carpenter said. "We’re doing anything in our power to ensure their safety."

About 9 a.m. someone in the plant noticed smoke coming from the drum, which was outside a building at the plant.

The plant’s security control center issued a plant-wide alert for the plant’s emergency response team. About 400 to 500 workers were in the plant at the time. Plant officials relocated about a fourth of the workers to an area upwind from the drum.

"The majority were probably wearing respiratory protection anyway," Mr. Chako said.

By that time the drum’s smoke plume was drifting over retention lagoons and toward the plant’s western fence. He said one of the response team members, dispatched to the fence, confirmed the plume was reaching neighboring property, so the company called the Ottawa County sheriff’s office to activate the emergency response plan set up by the company and county officials.

Emergency management personnel, including Ottawa County sheriff’s deputies and Elmore firefighters, closed off roads and evacuated residents from the sparsely populated area downwind of the plant.

Only one resident had to be evacuated. Four of the houses were empty, and residents of the other two had left by the time firefighters arrived.

Brush Wellman’s response team dumped sand on the drum about 10 a.m. to stop the chemical reaction, Mr. Chako said. The drum was moved to a ventilated area inside a building.

The heat melted the label off the drum, making it hard to match it up with logs that list the contents of waste containers, said Mike Czeczele, unit supervisor for the OEPA’s division of emergency and remedial response. He said the company is going to test the materials to find the drum’s contents in the next couple of days.

"We feel that beryllium was probably the contamination of primary concern," he said.

The material in the drum was sitting outside a building at the plant, waiting to be recycled. Mr. Chako said the company is tracing the origin of the drum, but they suspect it came to the plant from one of Brush’s customers.

Brush, based in Cleveland, has facilities in 11 states, including the company’s main plant near Elmore, which employs about 650 people.

An air monitor set up by Brush to test the air quality from the accidental release showed 0.65 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter.

The safety standard set by OSHA is 2 micrograms per cubic meter, although the U.S. Department of Energy has admitted it does not know what level - if any - is safe. OSHA does not have a standard specifically for outdoor air.

The situation was considered under control by 11 a.m. State Rt. 590 was reopened at 1:50 p.m. after plant chemists and emergency management officials determined it was safe to allow people to return to the area.

"There really shouldn’t be anything in the air anymore. It really should’ve only been in the air with the original release this morning," Mr. Czeczele said.

The Ohio Department of Health and the OEPA plan to continue monitoring air levels and to investigate what happened. Mr. Chako said Brush plans to spend the next few days determining how the accident occurred and what was in the drum.

The incident prompted Ohio Citizen Action, the state’s largest environmental group with 150,000 members, to renew its call for the plant and the federal government to pay for testing of nearby residents to determine whether they have contracted beryllium disease.

"This company is going to continue to put people in danger, and we need the federal government to step in and pay for an investigation into the plant," said Sarah Ogdahl of Ohio Citizen Action. "It’s a crisis. We need to get the testing in the community."

Ms. Ogdahl said she had been contacted by members of the organization’s Coalition for a Safe Environment who live in the area and told her they were concerned about their safety.

Brush Wellman has asserted repeatedly that it has taken great measures to ensure the safety of plant workers and nearby residents.

In 1999, The Blade documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the federal government and the beryllium industry. Among the findings: Government and industry officials knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.

About 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including at least 75 current or former workers at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.

Blade staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this report.

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