DeWine calls for look into beryllium


U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio called yesterday for an investigation into whether the federal government has been responsible for the injuries and deaths of American beryllium workers.

Mr. DeWine said he will ask the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, to look into the matter soon.

''The threshold question is: 'What did the government know and when did they know it?''' Senator DeWine said in an interview with The Blade.

In addition, he said he will ask the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to review its safety standards for the handling of beryllium.

''We are not only concerned about people who have been injured in the past, but we're concerned about potential injuries in the future and people who are in the workplace today,'' Mr. DeWine said.

The senator said his actions were sparked by The Blade series ''Deadly Alliance,'' published March 28 through April 2. The series detailed a decades-long pattern of the U.S. government putting beryllium production and costs ahead of worker safety.

Among the findings: Over the past five decades, the 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 have contracted beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness.

Three days into the series, Pennsylvania Congressman Paul Kanjorski called for congressional hearings on the matter - a move that has since gained support from other members of Congress.

Yesterday, Mr. Kanjorksi, a Democrat, welcomed the actions of Senator DeWine, a Republican.

''I think we actually have a window of opportunity in the next nine months to get a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and the administration on board to get some remedial legislation passed,'' Congressman Kanjorski said.

Beryllium is a hard, lightweight metal that has been used for more than 50 years by the government in defense applications. It has been used in nuclear weapons, missiles, and jet fighters.

When the metal is manufactured or machined, and the resulting dust inhaled, workers often develop a chronic lung illness.

It is unclear how many people have contracted beryllium disease. Experts cite 1,200 cases nationwide since the 1940s, but they say many others are misdiagnosed or undetected.

Locally, 50 current or former workers have contracted the disease at the Brush Wellman, Inc., beryllium plant outside Elmore.

Overall, beryllium disease has emerged as the No. 1 illness directly caused by America's Cold War buildup, experts say.

Senator DeWine said he will send a letter to the GAO early next week, asking that the agency determine whether the government was negligent concerning injuries caused by beryllium. When the GAO report is finished, Mr. DeWine said, he could determine whether legislation should be introduced.

He said ''a formal, independent study'' is needed; otherwise, passing legislation would be difficult.

GAO spokesman Cleve Corlett said he could not comment on the request until he had seen it.

By law, the GAO is required to do work for Congress and its committees, Mr. Corlett said. ''To the extent we have resources, we try and accommodate requests from members in their individual capacities,'' he said.

Senator DeWine said he will send a letter to OSHA next week, asking that the agency move quick ly to review safety standards. ''Time is of the essence,'' he said.

OSHA spokeswoman Bonnie Friedman said she wants to see the letter before commenting.

America's leading producer of beryllium is Brush Wellman, which has headquarters in Cleveland and 2,200 employees worldwide, including 650 at the Elmore plant.

Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said Senator DeWine's ''elected to represent the citizens of the state of Ohio, and he will do what he sees fit.''

Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, said: ''I welcome Senator DeWine's interest and activity on the issues surrounding beryllium. I look forward to sharing with him the findings of our previous work with OSHA, the [Environmental Protection Agency], and other health and safety organizations.''