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Deadly Alliance

How government and industry chose weapons over workers

About the series: "Deadly Alliance" is based on a 22-month investigation by The Blade. Thousands of court, industry, and recently declassified U.S. government documents were reviewed, and dozens of government officials, industry leaders, and victims were interviewed.

About Beryllium: Beryllium is a hard, lightweight, gray metallic element. It does not occur in nature as a pure metal; it is extracted from minerals, chiefly bertrandite and beryl, and produced through a series of chemical processes. Beryllium is used in nuclear weapons, missiles, and jet fighters. Small amounts are added to other metals, such as copper, and used in computer connectors, household appliances, and car ignitions. Beryllium's atomic number is 4 and chemical symbol Be.

About the disease: People exposed to beryllium dust often develop a lung illness called chronic beryllium disease, also known as berylliosis. It is caused by the dust lodging deep in the lungs. Symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath, which may not appear until many years after the last exposure to beryllium. The disease is often fatal, and there is no cure.

Scientists believe some people have a genetic predisposition to the disease. The federal exposure limit for workers is 2 micrograms of beryllium dust per cubic meter of air - equivalent to the amount of dust the size of a pencil tip spread throughout a 6-foot-high box the size of a football field.

About the victims: Researchers estimate 1,200 Americans have contracted beryllium disease, and hundreds have died, making it the No. 1 illness directly caused by America's Cold War buildup. Many cases have occurred in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, and Tennessee, home of beryllium or nuclear weapons plants. Fifty current or former workers at the Elmore plant have the disease. Twenty-six others have an abnormal blood test - a sign they may very well develop the illness.

 

Day 1: Decades of Risk

How government and industry chose weapons over workers: (3/28/99) 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.

Decades of risk: U.S. knowingly allowed workers to be overexposed to toxic dust: (3/28/99) Over the last five decades, the U.S. government has risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly allowing them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium, a material critical to the production of nuclear weapons. As a result, dozens of workers have contracted beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness. In the Toledo area alone, at least 39 workers have contracted the disease after being exposed to levels of beryllium over the federal safety limit. Six of these workers have died. A 22-month investigation by The Blade shows that the U.S. government clearly knew, decade after decade, that workers in the private beryllium industry were being overexposed to the hard, lightweight metal, which produces a toxic dust when manufactured or machined.

Atomic bomb scientists among early victims: (3/28/99) Factory workers aren't the only ones who have developed beryllium disease. Numerous scientists have contracted the illness, some of whom handled beryllium while working on the top secret Manhattan Project. Among those who have died: Dr. Herbert Anderson, a physicist who was instrumental in developing the world's first atomic bomb. "In his last years he couldn't do anything without an oxygen tank strapped to his back," recalls Dr. Theodore Puck, a longtime friend and cancer researcher.

Dust to Dust: Coal town hit hard by black lung now struggles with beryllium disease: (3/28/99) For decades, Hazelton, Pa., an old coal town in the northern reaches of Appalachia, was hit hard by black lung. Scores of miners developed the disease by breathing in the dangerous dust. Fathers got it. Sons got it. And, sometimes, their sons got it. "Between the mine explosions and black lung, good portions of families were wiped out," resident Carmen Fornataro says. Now, residents are suffering from another deadly dust: beryllium.

You too may be at risk: (3/28/99) You don't have to be a beryllium worker to be at risk for beryllium disease. If you've ever lived near a beryllium plant, you may be at risk. If you've ever toured a beryllium facility, you may be at risk. And if you've ever bought a used car from a beryllium worker, you may be at risk. These risks may be extremely low, but they do exist, health officials say.

Casualties without bullets: Many government workers still feel betrayed: (3/28/99) Bill Fletcher eases his pickup off the highway and points across the barbed wire fence and windswept mesa to what appears to be a small town in the distance. "Unless you knew it was here, you'd drive right by and never know it," he says. The collection of buildings is the old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Here, Mr. Fletcher and thousands of others built bombs during the Cold War, making it one of the U.S. government's most secret facilities. And here, Mr. Fletcher and dozens of others contracted beryllium disease -- a disease that has left Mr. Fletchertethered to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. More than 100 current and former workers at U.S. government sites such as Rocky Flats have been diagnosed with beryllium disease in recent years -- and dozens more are expected. Now, some say that the country they loyally served for years has betrayed them.

 

Day 2: Death of a Safety Plan

Industry, defense establishment twist a proposal to protect beryllium workers into a secret deal: (3/29/99) It was supposed to be a plan to protect workers. It was supposed to reduce the amount of toxic beryllium dust floating in many plants and machine shops. And it was supposed to limit the number of workers developing an incurable and often-fatal lung illness called beryllium disease. That was the plan at least. But this simple plan -- proposed by federal regulators in 1975 -- would eventually die, replaced by something far different.

As Cold War needs waned, beryllium found its way into consumer products: (3/29/99) Beryllium has long been used in nuclear weapons, jet fighters, and the space shuttle. Not exactly household items. But in recent years the highly toxic metal has been increasingly used in common consumer products, such as computers, televisions, and cell phones. It's even in golf clubs, sunglasses, pen clips, and dentures. This has some health officials and scientists concerned. They think using beryllium for products such as golf clubs is an unnecessary risk to the workers who make them and the consumers who use them.

Industry defender switched sides when diagnosed with cancer: (3/29/99) For more than 30 years, James Butler was a top beryllium executive and one of the industry's biggest defenders. One of his jobs: Fight the notion that beryllium causes lung cancer. So for years he assured customers, the public, and government officials that they had nothing to worry about. Then Mr. Butler himself developed lung cancer. When he did, he made a stunning turnabout: He blamed beryllium.

 

Day 3: Lethal Exposure

Brush misled workers, regulators about dangers:(3/30/99)  The nation's leading producer of the metal beryllium has repeatedly misled workers, federal regulators, and the public about the dangers of the highly toxic material. Brush Wellman Inc. knew for decades that its plants were consistently exposing workers to unsafe levels of beryllium. Yet the company implied to workers that the plants were safe and down played the risks of beryllium in employee handouts, instructional videos, and warning letters new employees had to sign. When government regulators turned their attention to the beryllium industry, Brush Wellman withheld evidence that showed that workers could get sick from beryllium even when government safety limits were met.

A company 'warning' to Brush Wellman workers: (3/30/99) Here is the text of a warning letter new Brush workers had to sign starting in 1959. It was used, virtually unchanged, for more than a quarter-century. Last year, Brush adopted a greatly expanded warning letter. For the first time in its warning letter to employees, Brush stated that beryllium disease can be fatal.

Federal judge rules Brush concealed documents: (3/30/99) When it comes to worker safety, Brush Wellman says it has nothing to hide. But a federal court in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1996 sanctioned the company for deliberately concealing potentially damaging documents about the dangers of beryllium. For this and related misconduct, Brush Wellman had to pay $175,000. "Brush Wellman's conduct has gone beyond gross negligence," U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Murrian wrote in the case. The company's "deliberate indifference" and "intentional failure to produce documents ... demonstrate a pattern of abuse that should be dealt with firmly."

Brush lawyers accused of knowing about fraud: (3/30/99) For more than a half-century, Brush Wellman has battled its health problems with the help of one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the nation: Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue. Jones Day has helped the beryllium company fight worker lawsuits and fend off U.S. safety regulators. Now, Jones Day attorneys are at the center of a serious allegation: A Colorado lawyer has accused Brush Wellman of using the attorneys to conceal the true dangers of beryllium. 

Wife of beryllium worker contracts illness: (3/30/99) Carol Mason has never worked a single day in a beryllium plant. She has never poured beryllium powder, run a beryllium furnace, or sanded a beryllium part. Yet she has one of the worst cases of beryllium disease in the country. She can't breathe without an oxygen tank, walking makes her heart race, and her medicine makes her moody and overweight. Exactly how the 64-year-old from Wood County contracted the disease remains a mystery. But one possibility: She got it from her husband, Bill, who worked at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore for nearly 40 years.


Day 4: Thought Control

Brush devised strategy to shape knowledge: (3/31/99) A dozen years ago, Brush Wellman and its amazing metal, beryllium, were under increasing attack. More and more workers were getting beryllium disease, customers were being scared off, and scientists were saying the metal was more dangerous than previously thought. Brush decided to fight back. Indeed, Brush's actions offer a rare glimpse at what a corporation facing mounting medical and public relations problems will do to protect its product.

Firm rewrote its role in Lorain tragedy: (3/31/99) It was one of the most mysterious public health cases in Ohio history: Fifty-one years ago, several residents here were dying from beryllium disease even though they had never set foot in the local beryllium plant. Federal and state health officials investigated, sampling the city's air for weeks and X-raying 10,000 residents -- a fifth of the entire town. The researchers' conclusion: Air pollution from the beryllium plant had caused beryllium disease in at least 10 people. That was 1948. Since then, the plant's owner, Brush Wellman Inc., has spread a much different version of events.

Brush gives victims the option to 'volunteer': (3/31/99) Two years ago, Brush Wellman applied for a top honor given by the local United Way: the Heart of Volunteerism Award. One of the company's key claims was that it had placed several full-time employees of its Elmore plant in public service positions. But what the company didn't tell the United Way or the public was why these workers were volunteering in the first place. They had contracted beryllium disease at the plant and did not want to further expose themselves to the toxic metal. So Brush Wellman required them to become full-time volunteers or lease themselves to other companies instead of working at the Brush plant. If they refused, they would lose their pay.


Day 5: Death Frees Beryllium Victim

Stint as a secretary exposed Marylin Miller to what would eventually kill her:  (4/1/99) Marilyn Miller died on April 13, 1998, after an exhausting, 30-year battle with beryllium disease. She was 68 and had spent her last 10 years tethered to an oxygen tank, unable to breathe on her own. The wife of a dairy farmer, she used to climb up in the silo and help toss out the silage. In her last few months, she didn't have the strength to wash herself. She contracted beryllium disease at a local Brush Wellman plant in the 1950s, when it was producing tons of beryllium metal for nuclear bombs for the Cold War. She worked there only four years, all as a secretary.


Day 6: If you're a taxpayer, you have contributed to Brush

Millions of public dollars have helped company to grow: (4/2/99) If you think you haven't contributed to workers at Brush Wellman Inc. getting sick and dying, think again. Millions of dollars in public money and tax breaks have gone to the beryllium producer to help it grow and thrive. Ottawa County once gave Brush Wellman the biggest tax break in county history. The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority once built a plant for the company. And Cuyahoga County once gave Brush Wellman a property tax cut because its land was polluted -- polluted, in part, by the company itself.

Brush backs politicians -- and vice versa: (4/2/99) Brush Wellman Inc. has had many friends in high places. U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah once opposed a worker safety plan that would have cost the company millions of dollars. Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur once obtained federal funds for the company to help it convert its defense technology to commercial uses. Likewise, Brush Wellman has backed these lawmakers - with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Overall, Brush Wellman has donated a total of $187,700 to 47 lawmakers and candidates since 1988. Most have been Republicans running for Congress in states in which Brush has beryllium plants, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

More than dust at Elmore: (4/2/99) 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.

Fight for life measured step at a time: (4/2/99) Butch Lemke attaches his portable oxygen tank to an old golf pull-cart and begins slowly walking around the inside perimeter of Woodville Mall. He moves steadily and deliberately, pushing the cart in front of him as if he's fertilizing a lawn. He passes the Fashion Bug, Tia's Coffee, and Perry Cream, where a teenage girl behind the counter steals a glance. After a full loop, he sits down on a bench to catch his breath. "I took 2,347 steps," he says, checking his pedometer. In 15 minutes, he'll try to do it again. Mr. Lemke has advanced beryllium disease, but he is determined not to let it kill him.

 

FOLLOWUP ARTICLES: 

Pennsylvania congressman proposes hearings on beryllium: (3/31/99) A Pennsylvania congressman called yesterday for congressional hearings into the U.S. government's involvement in the beryllium industry. U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski said that he is concerned that workers continue to become ill from the toxic metal. "It's clearly an obligation of the government to remediate the problem," he said. The Democrat said his call for hearings was sparked by The Blade's series "Deadly Alliance," which is describing how government and industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers in the private beryllium industry to be exposed to unsafe levels of the metal.

DeWine calls for look into beryllium: (4/17/99) 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.

U.S. says limits on beryllium fail: (4/23/99) The head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said yesterday that the federal exposure limit designed to protect thousands of American workers from beryllium disease is not working. ''It is very clear to me that at our current exposure level, people are being made ill and contracting a fatal disease,'' Charles Jeffress said. He said his agency is studying whether to tighten the beryllium safety standard - one of several steps the safety agency is taking to combat the chronic lung disease that has affected scores of workers locally and nationwide.

Brush promises increased beryllium protection: (6/9/99) Brush Wellman, Inc., yesterday announced major changes to protect its workers from deadly beryllium dust. Among the improvements: more respirators, increased air sampling, better housecleaning, and stricter plant access, including no more public tours. The changes took effect Monday at Brush's 650-employee beryllium plant outside Elmore. Brush officials said the improvements were prompted by recent testing at the plant that detected three more workers with beryllium disease and 10 more with abnormal blood tests.

At 24 and with 2 years on the job, chronic illness sets in: (6/9/99)  Tim Jennison had planned to work just a few more months at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant, pay off his car loan, and go back to college. "I didn't want to stay there long because I didn't want to get [beryllium disease]," the 24-year-old Oak Harbor resident said. But Mr. Jennison said that a few weeks ago, before he learned he has the often-fatal lung illness.

Congress orders beryllium study: (6/19/99) 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.

Aid to beryllium victims marks 'new era' in U.S.: (7/16/99) The Clinton administration yesterday said a new era of justice has begun in the way the federal government treats beryllium disease victims and other Cold War casualties. "The men and women who helped win the Cold War deserve to be recognized and rewarded for their work, not punished through poor health care and bills that they can't pay," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said at a press conference to announce a federal plan to compensate America's beryllium victims, including dozens in the Toledo area.

Workers encouraged but remain skeptical: Local beryllium workers interviewed by The Blade say they are heartened that the federal government is taking responsibility, but concerned that the payouts won't suffice. Under the proposal announced yesterday by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, beryllium workers employed by private contractors and suppliers would be eligible for federal benefits if they have chronic beryllium disease, an often-fatal lung illness. Victims of the disease, which is caused by exposure to beryllium's toxic dust, would be reimbursed for medical costs and some lost wages. Some victims would have the option of a single, lump-sum benefit of $100,000. But that's not enough, some workers say.

Worker, key to beryllium scrutiny, dies: (8/19/99)  Galen "Butch" Lemke of Elmore, a former Brush Wellman worker who became a leading activist for victims of beryllium disease, died yesterday in St. Charles Mercy Hospital after a long battle with the illness. He was 58. Mr. Lemke, who had been hospitalized for three weeks, had been connected to an oxygen tank for 15 years because of the disease, which results from exposure to the dust of the metal beryllium. An outspoken member of the local support group for beryllium victims, Mr. Lemke was featured in a recent series of Blade articles that detailed how federal government and industry officials knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. In fact, it was Mr. Lemke, a Blade reader, who first brought the issue to the newspaper's attention.

Beryllium disease mounts at Brush -- 11 more workers fall ill in 4 months: (10/6/99) Worker illness at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore continues to escalate. In the last four months, 11 more workers have been diagnosed with beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness caused by the metal's dust. A total of 64 workers have now contracted the disease at the plant since the 1950s.

Beryllium disease mounts at Brush: (10/9/99) Worker illness at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore continues to escalate. In the last four months, 11 more workers have been diagnosed with beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness caused by the metal's dust. A total of 64 workers have now contracted the disease at the plant since the 1950s.

White House: Pay victims of beryllium: (11/18/99) The Clinton administration yesterday asked Congress to compensate hundreds of former U.S. Department of Energy contract workers who became ill because of exposure to beryllium dust. At a news conference, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the plan would cover contract workers for the agency or those employed by companies that supplied the Department of Energy with beryllium, such as those at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.

2 contract workers at Brush stricken: (12/2/99) Local construction giant Rudolph/Libbe Companies reported yesterday that at least two of its workers have contracted beryllium disease at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore. The illnesses mark the first known cases of contract workers getting the incurable, often fatal lung disease at the beryllium plant. The Rudolph/Libbe cases are significant because they suggest that far more people may be at risk from beryllium disease than previously thought. While government and industry officials have acknowledged for years that full-time beryllium workers could become ill, authorities seldom have focused on the risks to contract workers, such as electricians, carpenters, and others spending limited time in beryllium plants.

Brush fined for unsafe conditions: (12/29/99) Federal investigators have hit the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore with 19 job-safety violations and nearly $50,000 in fines - the largest such package of penalties at the facility. Among the violations: workers being exposed to high levels of beryllium dust, a toxic material that has hurt or killed dozens of employees at the plant. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the violations and fines Monday after a five-month inspection at the plant. Advocates for beryllium victims said OSHA's report is more evidence that Brush Wellman officials are knowingly overexposing workers. 

U.S. can't be sued over worker illness:(2/18/00) A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. government cannot be held liable for injuries to workers at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapon complex as a result of their exposure to beryllium. U.S. District Judge James Jarvis ruled Wednesday that the government fell under a legal exception known as the "discretionary function exception," which shields the government from injury claims. He explained that the exception applies to "policy decisions" where the government has to make a judgment call. In other words, the government was required to provide a safe workplace for employees, but it set the standards at its discretion "based on policy considerations such as economics and the needs of national defense to keep a strong nuclear weapons arsenal."


AWARDS:

Beryllium series wins environmental award: (12/3/99) 

Beryllium probe wins national Community Leadership Award: (10/28/99)

Blade writer honored for investigative series: (4/6/00) 

Blade's Sam Roe a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting: (4/11/00)

Blade writer garners 2 national awards: (04/14/00)

Blade's Roe wins national honor for beryllium reports: (6/15/00)

Blade wins 9 awards from Ohio Press Society: (6/26/00)

 

BEHIND THE PROJECT 

About the reporter: Sam Roe, 38, has been with The Blade for 12 years, primarily as a special projects reporter. He is a graduate of Kent State University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. His investigative series have won numerous awards, including two National Press Club honors.

Project team:

Project editor: Dave Murray

Director of photography: Larry Roberts

Designer (newspaper): Jake Jones

Reporter: Sam Roe

Photo editors: David Cantor, Martin Kruse

Photographers: Allan Detrich, Chris Walker, Herral Long, Lori King, Don Simmons

Artist: Jeff Basting

Project coordinator: Roger Downing

Designers (online): Holden Lewis, Karen Heebsh

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