More than dust at Elmore: Ohio EPA finds Brush has polluted air, land, water

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  • Brush monitors the air outside its Elmore plant. One of the monitoring stations is on the property of Pete Willett, a retired chemist, whose land abuts the beryllium factory.
    Brush monitors the air outside its Elmore plant. One of the monitoring stations is on the property of Pete Willett, a retired chemist, whose land abuts the beryllium factory.

    ELMORE -- For 17 years, state officials warned Brush Wellman Inc. that its plant here was contaminating the groundwater.

    But year after year, the problem continued.

    Now, officials say, the pollution is creeping toward the Portage River and threatening several residents' wells.

    "This is one of our bigger issues in northwest Ohio," says Jeffery Steers, assistant chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency district office in Bowling Green.

    The tainted groundwater is one example of how Brush Wellman has created serious public health problems other than exposing its workers to dangerous beryllium dust.

    Ohio EPA records show that Brush Wellman's Elmore plant -- the company's main facility -- has violated dozens of environmental rules over the years, overpolluting the air, water, and ground.

    Some violations involve highly toxic materials.

    "Brush Wellman has a history of noncompliance with respect to Ohio's hazardous waste laws," one Ohio EPA record states.

    EPA officials estimate that 1,500 residents are potentially exposed to injury from Brush's plant near Elmore, 20 miles southeast of Toledo. The risks include contracting beryllium disease from air pollution and being poisoned from tainted drinking water.

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    A review of Ohio EPA documents on the Elmore plant shows:

    • The company has exceeded monthly air pollution limits for beryllium dust nine times in the last 25 years. This is significant because residents in other communities have contracted beryllium disease from air pollution and died.

    It is unclear how the emissions have affected residents near the Elmore plant because no tests have been done.

    • Brush has had more than 250 EPA violations over the past 20 years, and the EPA has fined the company more than $275,000 since 1987.
    • Since 1990, Brush has reported 29 spills, including releases of sewage and beryllium.

    The contaminated groundwater is the most pressing issue, Ohio EPA officials say.

    The underground pollution includes lead, arsenic, and mercury. The EPA says there is no evidence that it has moved off of Brush's property, but it is headed that way and is 1,500 feet from the nearest home.

    The EPA recently tested five residents' wells, and none showed problems. "But it's still an important issue for us," the EPA's Mr. Steers says. "We see it as a problem that still needs to be corrected."

    EPA officials have known for 17 years that Brush has been polluting the groundwater, but they have not stopped it. Mr. Steers blames the delay on government ineptitude and disputes between the Ohio EPA and Brush over the seriousness of the problem and the accuracy of test results.

    Some of the pollution is coming from a closed Brush landfill next to the Portage River, says Don North, an Ohio EPA environmental specialist. He says the landfill will be a problem indefinitely. "They'll be monitoring the groundwater out there forever," Mr. North says.

    Brush defends its environmental record.

    "We've had accidents and problems, but we don't ignore them," says Marc Kolanz, Brush's environmental health and safety director.

    He says many of the violations are inconsequential -- paperwork problems, for example. "I don't care what plant you go to: You are going to find a violation," Mr. Kolanz says. "There are too many rules and regulations not to."

    As for the tainted groundwater, he says it is not widespread, not spilling into the Portage River, and not a community threat. Brush has been monitoring the problem, he says, and will continue to do so.

    Brush's pollution problems in northwest Ohio date to the 1950s, when the company's now-closed plant in Luckey dumped waste into the Toussaint River.

    One year, a farmer downstream from the plant claimed that when the river flooded, waste from the beryllium plant spilled onto his farm, ruining his land and sickening his herd of 47 cattle.

    He sued Brush, and the firm settled out of court for $12,500. Brush's lawyers, company records show, thought that if the case went to trial, a jury in rural Ottawa County would likely give the farmer "a substantial verdict."

    A few years later, in 1966, pollution from Brush's Elmore plant killed 137,000 fish in the Portage River, the Ohio EPA reports. Brush says the cause was never determined.

    In recent years, inspectors have noted green sludge at the plant, a blue liquid in the river, and heavy foam on Hyde Run, a creek on Brush's property.

    In 1996, the company was fined $225,000 for numerous violations related to handling and storing hazardous and solid wastes.

    During an inspection that led to the fine, the EPA's Steve Snyder noticed a powder from a landfill blowing with the wind "and possibly off site." One worker in the area had a respirator on; another had a protective suit.

    But inspector Snyder was not wearing a respirator and was incensed that Brush did not warn him that he might need one. EPA officials wrote a heated letter to the company: "We are troubled by Brush Wellman's irresponsible actions in this matter."

    Brush responded by saying that the dust was likely not beryllium and that its workers were wearing protective gear for other jobs.

    For citizens near the plant, air pollution is a threat. Beryllium dust can be deadly, lodging in the lungs and causing an often-fatal disease.

    There is a strict monthly emission limit, and Brush has nine monitors around its plant to take samples. In the last 25 years, the plant has exceeded the limit nine times. The most recent violations were in 1989 and 1990, and the EPA fined Brush $46,000.

    Brush says neighbors have not been tested for beryllium disease because there is no indication they are getting sick.

    "My guess is it's not needed," Brush Medical Director Dr. David Deubner says.

    State officials have also been concerned about Brush polluting the water.

    Brush is allowed to discharge treated wastewater into its creek and the Portage River.

    But frequently, the concentration of the waste exceeds limits. In the last 20 years, Brush has had more than 150 violations for overpolluting the river or creek, EPA records show.

    In recent years, the EPA's Mr. Steers says, Brush's compliance has improved.

    And Brush has reported 29 spills since 1990. In fact, between 1989 and 1994, the company "was the single leading source of spills in the Portage River basin with 15 episodes," an Ohio EPA record states.

    A 1995 Ohio EPA study found that overall, the plant has had little effect on fish in the river. But it detailed several concerns:

    • Sediment samples in the river just outside Brush were "grossly polluted" with high levels of beryllium, copper, and polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs.
    • Levels of nitrate-N, a form of nitrogen that can cause excess algae growth, were so high that they damaged the lab equipment.
    • Elevated levels of PCBs were found in fish caught outside the plant, posing "a moderate health risk for human consumption."

    Residents say many people fish near Brush's plant.

    "In the spring they come out for white bass," says Pete Willett, a retired chemist who lives next to the plant. "All kinds of people are wading out there."