published February 16, 2001
Beryllium dust is
released into residential site
Emergency crews evacuate workers, area
roads near the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore are closed
after the release of the smoke. THE BLADE/DAVE
BY KELLY LECKER
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
There were no apparent injuries in the accident at
the plant, about three miles east of here and 20 miles southeast of
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
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used to make
nuclear weapons. The metal’s dust can cause a chronic, incurable
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
Brush Wellman officials said they immediately
worked to move workers and residents from the plume’s
"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.
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.
resident had to be evacuated. Four of the houses were empty, and
residents of the other two had left by the time firefighters
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
Brush Wellman has asserted repeatedly that it has
taken great measures to ensure the safety of plant workers and
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
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
Blade staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this