By Stacie Oulton
Denver Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 05, 2001 - GOLDEN - A lawsuit by Rocky Flats workers ill with a serious lung disease is a story of hard-working men who trusted what they were told about health protections at the former nuclear plant, an attorney for the workers said Monday.
But a company being sued over the disease said the real story is about a government plant so poorly run by contractors that the workers were allowed to eat among toxic dust.
"This case will be about who is telling the truth," said Al Stewart, a Dallas lawyer representing four Rocky Flats workers and their wives in a trial in Jefferson County District Court.
The workers are suing Brush Wellman Inc., an Ohio company that supplied beryllium to Rocky Flats for the production of nuclear weapons. The dust from the lightweight but strong metal has been known to cause chronic beryllium disease in workers. They are seeking unspecified monetary damages. The trial is expected to last five weeks.
The workers allege that Brush conspired with the federal government to hide the fact that workers could get sick even when exposed to levels below the federal safety standard for beryllium. They say that the company and government kept the information secret to keep the highly prized metal flowing to the defense industry.
"This company knew what they were doing," Stewart said in opening statements. "They thought of wealth over workers. ... They thought of production over health."
Stewart outlined declassified government documents and internal company records showing a conspiracy stretching from the 1940s to the present, he said. Among the documents is the diary of a Brush president acknowledging that workers were getting sick at exposure levels below the safety standard.
The case could gain national prominence because it will be the first time a jury will review those documents. Several cases are pending across the country against the company.
It's also a case that will pit the opinion of a prominent National Jewish Hospital doctor who has treated the workers against a Lutheran Hospital doctor.
Sydney McDole, Brush's attorney, said the Lutheran doctor will testify that the four workers don't show any outward symptoms of the disease, despite some of them carrying oxygen tanks.
Rockwell International and Dow, the companies that operated Rocky Flats for the government until 1989, are to blame for the lung disease, McDole said. Those companies removed warning labels from the beryllium before it reached workers, and they failed to fully implement a safety plan that included respirators, proper ventilation and other measures.
"Brush Wellman, back in Ohio, had no control over this," McDole said in her opening statements. "Dow and Rockwell didn't adequately protect these employees."
The company also dismissed the idea it conspired with the government to keep secret the inadequacies of the federal safety standard. McDole noted there were several documents available to the public that showed not all workers would be safe.
Research over the years has shown that those who are allergic to beryllium can get the disease no matter how small the exposure, and McDole cited several government reports that contained that information.