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Lorain weighs ban on beryllium work

Friday, March 17, 2000



A Cleveland metals manufacturer is under scrutiny in Lorain concerning a substance the company says it hasn't used in the city for more than half a century.

City Council member Kathy Tavenner has proposed a ban on the manufacture of beryllium, which Brush Wellman Inc. says it stopped using in Lorain when a fire destroyed its plant on W. 1st St. in 1948. Council members are expected to vote on the proposal on March 27.

Company executives said they have no plans to use beryllium at the current Lorain facility on Industrial Parkway, where 22 workers make bronze parts. But in a written statement, the company vowed to fight the ordinance because it could "send a bad message to other manufacturers about Lorain's willingness to single out individual materials."

Tavenner said Brush Wellman's refusal to rule out future beryllium use is the reason she will push for the ban.

"I want industry [in Lorain], but I don't want the city turned into a toxic dump," Tavenner said. "That's what beryllium will do."

Beryllium, a naturally occurring metallic element found in rocks, coal and oil, is safe in solid form, but its fumes or dust can cause an incurable, fatal lung disease if inhaled. Workers required to stamp, saw, drill, sand, grind or weld the metal are considered to be at risk.

When combined with copper, nickel or aluminum, beryllium becomes a stiff, strong metal able to withstand extreme heat.

The substance has a variety of applications, including missiles, Apache helicopters, golf clubs and cell phones.

Beryllium production has prompted numerous lawsuits from Brush Wellman workers and neighbors of the company’s plants, including an estimated 25 suits filed in the 1950s by Lorain residents allegedly sickened by beryllium exposure. In northwest Ohio’s Elmore, where the company employs 780 workers, dozens of workers reportedly have become ill, according to the Toledo Blade newspaper.

Brush Wellman’s original Lorain site produced beryllium-copper alloys from 1935 until the 1948 fire. Beryllium production shifted to a federally owned facility in Luckey, also in northwest Ohio, until 1957, when Brush Wellman opened a plant in Elmore, outside Toledo.

When the uranium atom was first split in 1939 to create atomic energy, the process included beryllium from Brush Wellman, then known as the Brush Beryllium Co. Beryllium was used either as a moderator, to slow down fast-moving neutrons in the reaction, or as a deflector for neutrons.

By 1958, the company supplied 99 percent of the metal for the then-booming atomic energy industry, although executives would not confirm its use in the atomic bomb.

Today, Brush Wellman is the nation’s leading processor of beryllium.

Tavenner, one of three Lorain council members-at-large, said she got the idea to propose a ban in 1997, when environmental consultants found beryllium in soil samples taken from the former Lorain plant site. Last year, she enlisted the help of Ohio Citizen Action, an environmental and consumer advocacy group whose members have gone door-to-door in Lorain neighborhoods to promote the beryllium ban.

"We’re finding overwhelming support" from the community, said Amy Ryder, director of the Cleveland office of Ohio Citizen Action. "They look at prohibition of beryllium as a way to protect public health."

But Lorain City Councilman Stan Cinniger said the proposal lacks widespread support from city leaders, who believe it unfairly targets Brush Wellman.

"If someone wants to manufacture beryllium here or anywhere else in the United States, they would have to navigate lengthy federal and state regulations," Cinniger said. "There is some feeling that this [ordinance] is unfairly directed at Brush Wellman. Other mills in the city use lead, aluminum and other controlled manufacturing processes."

Brush Wellman Vice President Hugh Hanes would not say whether the company will sue the city if the ban is enacted. If the company decides to use beryllium in Lorain, Hanes said, it would need to notify state and federal regulators, including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

"The public in Lorain, we feel, is more than adequately protected by public policy," Hanes said.


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