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U.S. feared loss of beryllium

Company drove hard bargain, ex-Brush Wellman exec says

By Ann Imse, News Staff Writer

The federal 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 videotape.

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 day.

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' spouses.

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 beryllium illness.

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 imse@RockyMountainNews.com.

June 7, 2001

 
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