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Beryllium maker tries to shift blame

Rocky Flats plant bears lion's share, manufacturer asserts

By Ann Imse, News Staff Writer

Beryllium producer Brush Wellman Inc. tried to shift blame to Rocky Flats Thursday in hopes of reducing the amount the company may have to pay nuclear plant workers suffering from chronic beryllium disease.

About 50 Rocky Flats workers suing the Cleveland manufacturer claim the company conspired with the federal government to hide the dangerous effects of breathing even minute amounts of beryllium.

The conspiracy was based on the government's need for the metal to make nuclear weapons at Rocky Flats, the workers lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court alleges.

If Brush Wellman attorneys can persuade the jury that their client bears only 20 percent of any liability, then Brush Wellman will have to pay only 20 percent of any damages.

If that strategy is successful, the compensation workers might receive would be considerably slashed.

They could not get the remainder from Rocky Flats and its former operators, Rockwell International and Dow Chemical. As employers, they are no longer liable for paying damages because they have already paid workers' compensation.

The jury may decide on liability as soon as next week. If it finds there is liability, a second phase of the trial will set damages for the first four workers and their spouses.

But this is just the first of 76 beryllium disease cases filed against Brush Wellman across the country. The jury's decision is expected to influence both sides in deciding whether to settle the claims of a total of 203 plaintiffs.

The last beryllium disease case ended favorably for Brush Wellman a decade ago, a company spokesman said.

But that was before the federal government declassified numerous documents used by the plaintiffs to make their case in Jefferson County. They are arguing that Atomic Energy Commission and Brush Wellman officials knew that less than 2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air could cause the wasting lung disease in a small percentage of the population.

Brush Wellman countered Thursday with testimony from occupational health expert Dr. Mark Van Ert of the University of Arizona. He said that Rocky Flats repeatedly violated that 2-microgram standard year after year.

He also testified that Rocky Flats documented the problems, but did not fix them during the 1970s and 1980s, when the plaintiffs were exposed to beryllium.

Plaintiffs' attorneys countered by confronting him with Brush Wellman documents, which claimed the disease occurred only after exposures of 30 to 50 micrograms.

June 15, 2001

2001 The E.W. Scripps Co.
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