Workers file lawsuit over exposure to toxic beryllium dust
By KIT WAGAR - The Kansas City
Two workers who were exposed to beryllium dust at a Kansas City nuclear weapon parts plant have filed lawsuits accusing three beryllium producers of a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up the dangers of handling the toxic metal.
The workers -- Amy Mills of Independence and Rhonda Fisher of Oak Grove -- also are accusing three current and former executives at the Honeywell International plant on Bannister Road of shirking their duty to warn employees of the dangers.
The lawsuits, filed July 30 in Jackson County Circuit Court, are the first involving the plant, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by Honeywell.
The lawsuits seek compensatory and punitive damages from three beryllium producers -- Brush Wellman Inc. of Cleveland, Cabot Corp. of Boston and NGK Metals Corp. of Reading, Pa.
The suits seek similar damages from three Honeywell executives: David Douglass, president of the Kansas City plant; Karen Clegg, the former president of the plant who is now president of Honeywell's defense and space business in Washington; and Chris Gentile, former director of the plant's environmental safety and health division.
Honeywell is not named in the lawsuit because workers' compensation laws make employers immune from civil lawsuits, said Grant Davis, the attorney for both women.
The three corporate defendants said that they had not been served with the lawsuits and that as a matter of policy did not comment on pending litigation. Honeywell spokeswoman Sharon Tiley said company policy prohibits employees from commenting on pending lawsuits.
Davis said that until recently, workers were never given basic safety equipment or cautioned about the dangers of beryllium and the toxic dust created when the metal is drilled or sanded. He said that the industry had evidence that the allowable exposure rate was too high but that workers were told it was safe.
"In this case, just the opposite was true," Davis said. "The workers weren't afraid, because they weren't told at all about the dangers."
Fisher, a machinist, has worked at the plant since 1979. Mills, a laborer, has worked there since 1986.
Both women have chronic beryllium disease, an incurable and often fatal ailment that has been linked to cancer. The illness, the result of inhaling beryllium dust or fumes, causes breathing to grow increasingly difficult as the metal eats away lung tissue.
Brush Wellman spokesman Patrick Carpenter said accusations about inadequate labeling of the products and failure to warn of the danger were not new.
He pointed to a Colorado lawsuit that used similar allegations to try to hold the company responsible for chronic beryllium disease among workers at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. In June, a jury found that Brush Wellman, which supplied beryllium to Rocky Flats, was not liable for the workers' illnesses.
"This is not something we need to hide from," Carpenter said. "We have a record of communicating the hazards of respirable beryllium, and we have for more than 50 years."
The plant has used beryllium-copper alloys in the manufacture of triggers and other precision parts for nuclear weapons since 1949, when it was operated by Bendix Corp.
The Jackson County lawsuits accuse the beryllium producers of covering up the known dangers of minute amounts of beryllium dust to protect their profits. The suits contend that the industry colluded to defeat lawsuits against individual producers, funded false expert testimony to federal safety regulators and fought European regulators' attempts to require warning labels.
The companies even conspired with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to conceal the risks, then established a maximum exposure limit that the companies knew would be harmful to workers, the suits allege. The companies knew that the exposure limit of 2 micrograms per cubic liter of air over eight hours was far too high, the lawsuits say.
Davis said the companies' actions were similar to the steps taken by cigarette makers to hide the harmful effects of tobacco.
"What is different is that smokers knowingly smoked cigarettes with warning labels on them," Davis said. "These workers were never told. They didn't have a clue that they were breathing something that would eat up their lungs to the point that they would suffocate."
Carpenter, however, said Brush Wellman has included warning labels on the proper handling of beryllium products since the late 1940s.
The use of beryllium at Honeywell's Kansas City plant because an issue in 1999, when the Department of Energy listed it as one of 26 facilities where workers may have been exposed to toxic levels.
The Energy Department that year ordered all its nuclear weapon plants to develop a program to prevent chronic beryllium disease. The program included a 90 percent reduction in the maximum allowable exposure level, to 0.2 micrograms per cubic liter of air. And the department began testing current and former employees for evidence of the disease.
Tiley said four current workers have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease. Ten others have developed beryllium sensitivity, which can be a precursor to the disease. Tiley said 20 former workers were found to have sensitivity.
After the testing began, Honeywell officials discovered that excessive levels of beryllium dust had contaminated about 5 percent of the complex, which now encompasses about 3.1 million square feet.
Tiley said all but one of the 16 contaminated areas had been cleaned up. The last area will be finished by Sept. 1.
Chronic beryllium disease
Workers who inhale beryllium dust or fumes are at risk of developing the illness, which causes breathing to grow increasingly difficult as the metal eats away lung tissue. Incurable and often fatal, it has been linked to cancer.