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Wed, Mar 29, 2000

Brush Wellman: Put it in writing

A writer named Jon Katz once described a trend in the entertainment media he called 'The new news.' He said people were increasingly getting their ideas about what was going on in the real world from what they saw and heard on television, over the radio and in theaters. We were reminded of this recently in seeing the popular film 'Erin Brockovich,' which has probably done more than the news media lately to draw people's attention to an environmental cause.

The movie is based on the true story of a brash young woman from California who tackled a billion-dollar industry in an environmental lawsuit. Pacific Gas & Electric lost the case and was forced to pay $333 million to people hurt by contamination of the water supply in the California desert town of Hinkley. Popular Hollywood star Julia Roberts portrayed the movie's namesake, who is still working in California today to battle PG&E on other fronts.

In California, the danger was from harmful levels of cancer-causing chromium 6, something that had already spread to areas near a PG&E facility from the 1950s to the 1970s. As the story is told, PG&E made a mistake by failing to do the right thing early on, when the trouble was discovered. The utility company paid a great price for underestimating the power of a single environmental activist.

We have an environmental fight going on in Lorain now over a raw material called beryllium. The dust particles from it are said to cause a deadly lung disease. Here, the issue is sparked by the memory of an old disaster, the fire that destroyed the Brush Beryllium plant in Lorain in 1948. There are also reports of more recent troubles at the successor company, Brush Wellman, in a plant at Elmore near Toledo.

Brush Wellman has a relatively new facility in Lorain and, while beryllium isn't stored or used here, the company refuses to promise it never will be. A council member, Kathy Tavenner, D- at large, has been crusading to get a city ordinance passed to ban beryllium in Lorain. The issue was aired at a council committee meeting Monday night.

Lorain doesn't want a reputation of being inhospitable to industry, but the community also remembers how much effort it took to rid itself of another environmental problem, the Stoneco asphalt plant. Brush Wellman says it has no intention now of using or storing beryllium here, but it won't say 'never.'

Maybe it isn't wise for a city to ban specific ingredients that might be needed by industry and maybe we can rely on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard the people of Lorain from environmental hazards. But, considering the true story of Erin Brockovich, we'd certainly support a specific ban on the deadly ingredient called chromium 6 and we now have doubts about the effectiveness of the EPA. Where was it for the people of Hinkley, Calif.?

Brush Wellman officials point out that they would have to go through a difficult and expensive public application process if they ever hoped to start storing or using beryllium in Lorain, so, in their view, there's no need for concern now.

We say, however, that if the company really means it doesn't have such intentions, it should simply make that promise in writing now, in a form that could be enforced in a court of law, and save the city the trouble of passing and defending an ordinance to require it.

The people of Hinkley, Calif., couldn't trust PG&E. The people of Lorain shouldn't have to trust Brush Wellman.

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