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Lorain may consider ban on beryllium production

Monday, April 10, 2000

By KAREN HENDERSON

PLAIN DEALER REPORTER

LORAIN - City officials are researching the dangers of beryllium as they weigh health and legal issues for a possible ban on the storage or manufacture of the product in their city.

For Dorothy Bernsee, 82, the call is an easy one. She watched her husband, Howard, slowly die from chronic beryllium disease after he was exposed to the dust at the old beryllium plant on W. 1st St.

Bernsee said he had worked at the plant for only 10 days in 1947 when a lethal amount of the dust got inside his face mask.

"That was all it took," Bernsee said. She said she watched his health deteriorate over the years. The disease affected his breathing, making it hard for him to climb stairs. He lost weight, and it finally affected his heart. He died in 1971.

"It should be banned," Bernsee said.

Lawmakers say the ban would be the first of its kind in the country and probably would be challenged in court by lawyers questioning how far a city’s police powers extend over the rights of a company to produce a product.

The ban was proposed by Lorain City Councilwoman Kathy Tavenner, who fears Brush Wellman Inc., the largest manufacturer of beryllium in the county, may decide to manufacture the product at its plant in the Lorain Industrial Park.

Brush Wellman, with headquarters in Cleveland, manufactures beryllium and beryllium compounds used in a variety of products from nuclear weapons to cell phones, Apache helicopters, sensors for airbags and golf clubs.

Hugh Hanes, Brush Wellman’s vice president of governmental affairs, said the company had not manufactured beryllium in Lorain since its old plant burned in 1948. The company has no plans to manufacture beryllium there, he said.

But Tavenner worries that the company’s plans could change.

Law Director Mark Provenza said the city needed to be on solid ground constitutionally. He said city lawyers needed to prove that beryllium is harmful to the community and is "inherently evil."

Tavenner said lawmakers should have no problem proving that the substance has the potential to sicken and kill people. It happened before.

In the 1940s, when beryllium was in great demand for the war effort, plant workers and residents near an old Brush plant at W. 1st St. on the banks of Lake Erie became ill from inhaling the dust and fumes.

Federal and state health officials sampled the city’s air for weeks and X-rayed 10,000 residents for signs of the disease. They initially found 10 cases. By the 1950s, about 25 lawsuits had been filed by residents.

Elsewhere, beryllium exposure caused deaths among scientists working on the atom bomb and among residents living near and working in other beryllium plants.

Last November, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson proposed a plan to compensate nuclear weapons workers sickened by beryllium and radioactive materials during the Cold War.

Democratic Reps. Sherrod Brown and Dennis Kucinich said the plan would cover 32 workers and neighbors of the old Lorain plant who died from chronic beryllium disease. Some of the survivors still live in the area and spoke in favor of the ban during a hearing before City Council earlier this year.

Another hearing on the proposed ban is set for May 8. Bernsee, who still lives in Lorain, said she would attend to tell her story.

Hanes said he also planned to attend to dispel misconceptions about beryllium production. He said that banning what a plant can produce would set bad policy and send the wrong message to companies considering moving to the city.

"We believe the proposed ban is redundant and perhaps unconstitutional," Hanes said. He said state and federal agencies already regulate beryllium production.

A problem for lawmakers is that no one, including the government, seems to know what a safe level of exposure is.

Dr. Kathleen Fagan, a former University Hospitals doctor and expert on chemical exposures, told City Council recently that "beryllium is clearly one of the most toxic metals in industry." She said it could be compared to lead and asbestos. In the 1990s, it was found to cause lung cancer, she said.

"My recommendation to you is to do everything you can to prevent beryllium exposure to the citizens and workers of Lorain," Fagan said.

Amy Ryder, Cleveland area director of Ohio Citizen Action, supports Tavenner’s efforts to pass a ban. She said about 20 lawsuits, including two class actions - one of them filed last week in federal court in Cleveland - were pending against Brush Wellman in Ohio.

E-mail: khenderson@plaind.com

Phone: 1-800-767-2821

©2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.


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