U.S. feared loss of beryllium
government delayed tighter regulation of "the most
deadly element of all time" for 20 years, after its sole
producer said it would stop making beryllium for nuclear
bombs without that protection, according to testimony
Wednesday in a Jefferson County courtroom.
About 50 people are suing beryllium producer Brush
Wellman Inc. of Cleveland for allegedly conspiring with
the federal government to hide the metal's dangers.
Retired Brush Wellman vice president Steve Zenczak
testified Wednesday that after the only other producer
quit the business in 1979, defense and energy department
officials called a meeting to make sure that Brush
Wellman would continue to mine and process beryllium.
Rocky Flats needed beryllium to produce nuclear weapons.
Company officials told the government officials that
to continue production, they needed an immediate 35
percent price hike and relief from OSHA efforts to
tighten the safety standard, Zenczak testified on
Zenczak said Brush Wellman told the federal officials
it needed help with "OSHA efforts to lower the standard
to what was viewed by us as unreasonable, unnecessary
and possibly unattainable levels." He said the federal
officials promised to talk to OSHA.
In fact, OSHA has not tightened the standard to this
The plaintiffs say they were exposed to beryllium
while working at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant,
and they now suffer from chronic beryllium disease, a
wasting lung ailment. Plaintiffs also include workers'
Zenczak said Brush Wellman did not directly threaten
to quit producing beryllium if OSHA was not stopped. But
"the inference could have been drawn," he said.
Brush Wellman consistently told employees and
customers that workers would be protected from chronic
beryllium disease if they were exposed to less than 2
micrograms per cubic meter of air, the government
standard set in 1949.
The plaintiffs claim Brush Wellman has known for
decades that some people suffer chronic beryllium
disease after exposure to less than 2 micrograms of the
strong, lightweight material.
It was only in 1999, about 20 years after Brush
Wellman's warning, that OSHA issued an alert stating
that the 2-microgram standard might not be sufficient to
protect workers, according to court documents.
Plaintiffs' attorney Allen Stewart also presented to
the jury on Wednesday a 50-year-old document signed by
Brush Wellman's then-medical director that said an
investigative group believed even then that as little as
2.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air could result in
That level would make beryllium "the most deadly
element of all time" on the basis of molecular weight,
the letter said.
Even 2 micrograms is an extremely small amount. It is
equivalent to a pencil tip crushed and dispersed in the
air six feet high over an area the size of a football
field, according to court documents.
The jury also heard from a beryllium disease victim,
59-year-old Ronald Roerish, who walked to the witness
stand carrying his oxygen bottle.
Roerish testified that Rocky Flats never gave him
training in the dangers of beryllium until 1988, after
he stopped working in the beryllium foundry.
Roerish testified that he wore a respirator in the
foundry, but Brush Wellman attorney Roy Atwood drew
testimony from Roerish that he did go into the beryllium
machine shop without one.
Contact Ann Imse at (303) 892-5438 or