The question of whether the federal government has been at fault for the deaths and injuries of American beryllium workers will be the subject of a formal investigation by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The order to GAO to study the hazards of beryllium, a metal used by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy because of its light weight and strength in the manufacture of weapons, came from a bipartisan group of eight members of Congress.
Led by Sen. Mike DeWine (R., O.), the ad hoc coalition includes Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Robert Bennett (R., Utah); and Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), Chris Shays (R., Conn.), Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), and Paul Kanjorski (D., Pa.).
Mr. DeWine began the call for a GAO investigation in April and has since been organizing and collecting support from colleagues. He said his actions were sparked by a series in The Blade that detailed a decades-long pattern of the U.S. government putting beryllium production and costs ahead of worker safety.
The letter to the GAO signed this week by the eight lawmakers triggered an automatic negotiation on the scope of the investigation and the timetable. The lawmakers asked GAO to gather preliminary data by July and then discuss a time frame and format for a final report.
A GAO spokeswoman said that it is "much too early" to know how many staff members will be assigned, how long the investigation will take, or how in-depth it will be.
After a preliminary investigation, such elements will be negotiated between the GAO and the eight members.
The letter to David Walker, comptroller general of the GAO, said the Defense Department uses the metal in the manufacture of various weapons because beryllium's properties make it lightweight and strong, and the Energy Department uses the material in nuclear facilities.
The lawmakers said recent media articles have raised questions about the health and safety risks from exposure to beryllium dust and the standards to minimize risk.
"Federal officials have acknowledged that the government has done a poor job of protecting workers," the letter said. "Because of the concerns that have been raised, we request that GAO provide information on the evolution of beryllium as a hazardous material and on the controls over exposure to its use."
Beryllium is safe in solid form, but when it is manufactured or machined, a toxic dust is created that can cause an often-fatal, incurable lung disease.
The lawmakers asked that GAO identify government uses of beryllium in the past and the present, identify the extent that exposures have exceeded standards established either by the former Atomic Energy Commission or the current Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and describe changes in the metal's use. GAO is also to determine whether any other safer materials could be used as a substitute for beryllium.
The Blade series showed that over the past five decades, the U.S. government and the beryllium industry risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly allowing them to be exposed to levels of beryllium over the federal safety limit. As a result, dozens of workers contracted beryllium disease, and some died.
In addition, the series detailed how the federal government helped kill a 1975 safety plan that would have required lower levels of beryllium dust in manufacturing plants in an effort to protect workers. The government was worried that worker-safety plans might limit the supply of beryllium needed for weaponry.
Mr. Kanjorski, who in February introduced a bill to compensate Americans with beryllium disease, said in a statement that he thinks it is "a good sign that the beryllium issue has received the attention of so many distinguished legislators from both parties."
He said that he took the issue to Vice President Gore and met with officials from the Labor Department and the Department of Energy to "enlist their active support for our efforts to craft a prompt remedy for these victims of the Cold War."
Mr. Kanjorski's district includes Hazleton, Pa., the site of a plant that processed beryllium ore for the U.S. military between 1957 and 1981 and where more than 1,300 people were employed.
Mr. DeWine yesterday called the GAO investigation "the first important step to uncover the federal government's knowledge of the risks associated with beryllium dust." He said the study "will detail what federal agencies knew about beryllium dust, when the agencies knew these facts, and what policies these agencies enacted in light of this knowledge."
Miss Kaptur said: "The GAO study will enlighten our legislative initiatives that my colleagues and I are working on to help those with chronic beryllium disease."
An estimated 1,200 people nationwide have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including at least 53 at the Brush Wellman, Inc., beryllium plant outside Elmore.
Hugh Hanes, vice president of government affairs for Brush Wellman, the largest U.S. beryllium producer, said, "We have said from the beginning, ever since Senator DeWine called for this, that a thoughtful and reasoned study would be helpful in understanding these circumstances.
"We believe that the GAO will find on this that much of this has already been studied by the federal government. We think a lot of this information is already known."
Mr. Hanes said nobody from GAO has contacted the firm and the study is "directed inwardly" within the federal government.
Blade Senior Writer Sam Roe contributed to this report.