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Published: Thursday, 12/27/2012

DEADLY ALLIANCE

How government and industry chose weapons over workers

BLADE STAFF

It is a substance many people have never even heard of. Yet for more than 50 years it has been one of the most critical materials to the U.S. government.

The substance: beryllium, a magical metal that is lighter than aluminum and stiffer than steel.

It makes missiles fly farther, jet fighters more maneuverable, and nuclear weapons more powerful.

But there is a catch: Workers who manufacture this rare material often contract a deadly lung disease from inhaling the metal's dust.

An estimated 1,200 Americans have contracted the disease, and hundreds have died -- some in the Toledo area.

And many of these illnesses and deaths have not been strictly accidental.

READ MORE: Deadly Alliance series

A 22-month investigation by the Blade shows that the U.S. government and the beryllium industry have knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. This has occurred year after year, for more than 40 years.

And it continues today.

At the local beryllium plant outside Elmore, O., workers continue to be overexposed to beryllium and continue to be diagnosed with beryllium disease.

A recent study found 1 in 11 workers at the plant either have the disease or an abnormal blood test -- a sign that they may very well develop the illness.

Some of these workers, documents show, were clearly overexposed and inadequately warned.

Time and time again, plant owner Brush Wellman Inc., America's leading beryllium producer, misled its workers -- and deceived safety regulators.

When safety regulators tried to protect workers, they ran up against an overwhelming alliance: the beryllium industry and the U.S. defense establishment.

This alliance, records show, slowly undermined the regulators' safety efforts, and before it was all over, the government had cut a secret deal with Brush Wellman. The government got its valuable beryllium for years to come, and Brush got more money and a virtual monopoly.

Workers got more of the same: overexposure to beryllium dust.

The Blade investigation was based on tens of thousands of court, industry, and recently declassified government documents. In this series, we detail our findings.

In Part 1. we show how the government has sacrificed workers' health in the name of national security.

In Part 2, we document how industry and defense officials twisted a plan to protect workers into a deal protecting themselves.

Part 3 and Part 4, we lay out Brush's actions -- how the company has downplayed hazards, concealed documents, covered up its checkered past, and ystematically tried to control the public's knowledge of beryllium.

In Part 5, we tell the story of Marilyn Miller, who contracted the disease while working as a secretary at a Brush plant. We follow her final days, and final hours.

Part 6 explores how public officials have been quick to give Brush Wellman tax dollars but slow to raise health concerns.

Throughout the series, we'll take you to places across the country where the disease is a problem, from an aging Pennsylvania coal town to a former Colorado weapons plant.

You'll meet 7-year-old Gloria Gorka, killed by air pollution outside a beryllium plant; Butch Lemke, a former worker who has spent 15 years tied to an oxygen tank, and Carol Mason, who has the disease even though she never worked a single day in a beryllium facility.



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