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Flats workers' suit eyed

Trial tests claim of beryllium exposure

By Stacie Oulton
Denver Post Staff Writer

Monday, June 04, 2001 - Dave Norgard lives every day with the fear of ending up tethered to an oxygen tank, choking to get every breath. Worse yet, he could die.

Feds provide compensation

A trial starting today on behalf of Rocky Flats workers suffering from a debilitating lung disease is not the only action putting a spotlight on the sick workers.

The trial in Jefferson County is getting underway just as the federal government begins work on compensating nuclear-weapons workers exposed to beryllium.

Congress passed legislation last year allowing workers to receive up to $150,000 each and medical coverage for cancer and other diseases they contracted while working at Energy Department facilities or for its contractors.

As of April, 119 Rocky Flats employees have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease and another 184 have been "sensitized" to the metal. Some 10 percent of those sensitized could end up with the disease, said Karen Lutz, a Rocky Flats spokeswoman.

Nationwide, 165 workers in the government nuclear-weapons complex have the disease, she said.

Spouses and relatives of deceased workers also are eligible for the benefits, potentially opening up the program to an estimated 2,000 Coloradans, Lutz said.

The U.S. Labor Department will administer the program with the help of the Energy Department. Workers can call a toll-free number with questions, 866-888-3322. Applications for benefits can also be obtained on the Internet at www.dol.gov.

If workers lose their suit in court, it's unclear whether they will be able to receive the federal compensation, labor officials and attorneys have said.

The Jefferson County lawsuit could be significant because documents released in that case could make it easier for workers to assemble and file claims under the act, union officials said.

The daily worry drove him into a depression that required medication.

"I was getting suicidal there. My family was getting pretty worried about it," Norgard said.

The 45-year-old is one of hundreds of workers across the country who has chronic beryllium disease, a lung ailment contracted by working amid particles and the dust of beryllium.

Many of those who are sick worked in the country's nuclear-weapons facilities, where the lightweight but strong metal was highly prized. And most of the disease's victims worked at Rocky Flats, the former nuclear-weapons plant near Arvada.

Norgard will be closely watching a trial starting today in Jefferson County District Court involving some of those stricken Rocky Flats workers. He may come here from his Michigan home to attend the four-week trial. His daughter and son live in the Denver area.

He knows that it's a case that could gain national prominence for several reasons. It will be the first time a jury reviews documents showing what the federal government and the world's leading beryllium supplier knew about what was happening to workers, according to union officials, attorneys and others.

"I would like to think that the average man and woman on the street and the working individual will be able to see the significance (of the documents). We are talking about something similar to what happened to (cigarette) smokers," Norgard said. "To not know something (is harmful) and to try to do the best to find out is one thing. But to know something (is harmful) and to carry on as if nothing has happened is something else."

Fifty Rocky Flats workers are suing Brush Wellman Inc., a Cleveland-based company that is the world's leading supplier of beryllium. The company shipped beryllium to Rocky Flats, where workers fashioned the metal. The Jefferson County case will involve an initial four workers and their wives.

The lawsuit alleges that Brush has always known that workers could contract the lung disease, even from the most minute exposure. Moreover, it claims Brush and the federal government conspired to keep secret information that the federal safety standard for beryllium dust in the workplace didn't protect workers.

The workers are seeking unspecified monetary damages.

The Jefferson County case also will be the first trial involving employees from a federal nuclear facility. The outcome could set the tone for other federal workers who have sued, one attorney in the case said.

The company maintains it has done nothing wrong and actually has worked hard to research the problem and help workers.

"We intend to defend (ourselves) vigorously," said Patrick Carpenter, a Brush Wellman spokesman.

Across the country, the company faces 71 lawsuits involving 192 plaintiffs, Carpenter said. While some of the company's documents and declassified federal reports have been part of other lawsuits, those cases have not yet come before a jury.

The metal also has gained favor outside the defense industry, showing up in parts for cars, cellphones, computers, bicycles, dental work and golf clubs. As many as 800,000 employees in a variety of industries could be working with the metal, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The federal safety standard, known as the "taxicab standard" because it was set during a conversation among officials in a taxicab more than 50 years ago, remains in place today.

The federal government is considering lowering the standard, and a new one could be proposed in December.

Norgard had worked in one of Brush's plants for just a month when he experienced a full-body rash and skin ulcers. He heads the National Advocates for Beryllium Education and Reform and is also suing the company.

"The fact that the company won't fess up is one of the hardest things to deal with," he said.

Attorneys on both sides of the Jefferson County case declined to comment, and the workers who have waited five years for the trial to begin also were told by their attorneys to not comment.

The internal company documents and declassified government material introduced in the case indicate:

The company knew as early as 1951 that workers were becoming sick when exposed to beryllium levels below the federal safety standard.

The federal government allowed Brush to censor medical documents for years. For example, a report from Brush's medical director, concluding that beryllium was one of the "most deadly (elements) known to mankind," was censored.

Brush was allowed to change a 1972 government report to make false conclusions about those who had contracted the disease. The report ultimately concluded the federal safety standard protected workers.

Plaintiffs plan to use admissions by Bill Richardson, energy secretary under President Clinton, that the government colluded with Brush Wellman to keep beryllium flowing to the defense industry, sacrificing workers' health.

As for conspiring with the government, Brush says that could hardly be true.

The company notes that when the federal government set the safety standard on dust exposure in 1949, it warned that it was only a "tentative" standard and that it might not protect all workers.

The company also cites several government documents, including 1984 and 1986 reports by two federal agencies, warning that not all people will be protected by the federal standard.

"The fact that there were questions about the protectiveness of the existing standard for exposure to airborne concentrations of beryllium was certainly no secret," one company court brief said.


 

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