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Published: 3/24/2006

Action delayed by port board on loan for new beryllium plant

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Port board member Nadeem Salem Port board member Nadeem Salem
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A proposed loan package for construction of a beryllium factory near Elmore has Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board members once again morally conflicted.

The new plant, to be operated by Brush Wellman Inc., would produce valuable material for the defense industry and create 25 good-paying jobs, but it also would produce potentially dangerous dust that can lead to fatal illness.

The port authority board yesterday voted 9-2 for a 30-day delay in considering a $7.5 million bond package for the project.

It's an old debate among board members about what factors to consider in overseeing applications for the Northwest Ohio Bond Fund - a state program that generates about $1 million a year in fees for the port authority.

Should living wage, diversity, safety, or other social and workplace issues be considered when approving bond applications? Or just the financial aspects? What are the port board members' duties? Some of them aren't sure.

"I still struggle with our role," said board member Nadeem Salem, who works for Savage & Associates. "I'm trying to figure out our role. To what degree do we extend our role? At some point, we have to tackle this issue."

Beryllium refining has been a hot-button issue since a 1999 Blade investigative series that exposed a cover-up by the beryllium industry and federal government of a respiratory illness - berylliosis - that is sometimes caused by exposure to beryllium dust, a by-product of the manufacturing of beryllium metal alloys and ceramic products containing the metal.

The Blade's series, which won numerous state and national awards and was a Pulitzer prize finalist in 2000, also reported that beryllium exposure spread to people outside the industry when workers carried dust with them out of the factory on their clothing.

A Brush official said in a telephone interview last month that the new plant would be heavily automated and designed to minimize beryllium dust exposure to its projected 25 workers.

So if the state and various agencies, such as the Ohio EPA, approve a company's plans, shouldn't the port authority too? Its charge as steward of the bond program is merely to certify applications as financially sound, not to make value judgments.

When asked whether the port board should judge beyond financial aspects, Tom Schlachter, former chairman of the port board's finance committee, always answered "no." He resigned from the board in October, and some board members have never felt comfortable with the job of financial rubber stamp.

It's an issue that keeps coming up. The board recently approved a controversial bond application for a large-scale dairy farm, operations accused by some of being environmentally unfriendly because of the amount of animal wastes created.

The board approved the delay yesterday with the stipulation that they hear from Brush Wellman officials over the next 30 days about their hiring practices and workplace safety.

Board member Ken Dobson said there are human elements that can't be ignored: "There are human lives involved in this process. I would hope we would have time to speak with representatives from the company."

Port board vice chairman Bill Carroll, a retired Dana Corp. executive, disagreed.

"I don't think this is appropriate to bring forward at this time," said Mr. Carroll. "You can't just take one piece of this, and say they are not a good corporate citizen."

Board member G. Opie Rollison, an attorney, said he was not comfortable with the port authority holding title to the factory because of environmental concerns. "I think this is high risk," he said.

"There are no guidelines for social consciousness," said Bruce Baumhower, who is a union official with the United Auto Workers.

Mr. Rollison and Mr, Baumhower voted against the delay yesterday, and at the last board meeting also voted against moving ahead with the project.

After the board voted to delay, the next project to be considered for the program was $2.5 million to be borrowed by St. Ursula Academy, an all-girls Catholic school. That was approved unanimously. The money is not used for religious purposes.

Mr. Carroll used the school's project as an example of what he called the "slippery slope" of making value judgements.

"Should we start looking at teacher-pupil ratios?" he asked. "It starts to become really broad, but what else do we look at? Where do we stop?"

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick

at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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