UNTIL A YEAR ago, few of us had ever heard of beryllium, the curiously strong but light fourth element in the atomic chart that, among other things, is a critical component in nuclear bombs. But all of a sudden beryllium detonated at the newsstand--it was the latest toxic threat in our own back yard.
Tucsonans working at a Brush Wellman ceramics plant on South Tucson Boulevard were getting very sick. Many of them were coming down with an incurable disease called berylliosis, contracted from breathing supposedly safe air while doing beryllia fabrication over the last 20 years. So far, one local employee has died of berylliosis. Yet every day a "legal" amount of beryllium continues to exit the Brush stack. How much risk does the surrounding community face?
Brenda Llanes grew up on the south side. She is employed by Sunnyside School District, which is headquartered very close to the Brush plant, and her three children go to school less than a half-mile away at Sunnyside High.
Llanes is scared.
"It's not enough that Pima County inspects this plant once a year," she says. "Every day they emit a deadly toxin with little reporting or monitoring. There are three grade schools just blocks away from this place, and a middle school. We deserve more protection."
That is why Llanes has joined with environmental and social justice groups to request that the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PDEQ) hold a public hearing on Brush's latest air quality permit. It is scheduled for Wednesday, August 9, at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Sunnyside High School.
No one is asking for this plant to be shut down. But no one has forgotten the TCE tragedy. Thirty years ago, southsiders were assured by government and industry that the trichlorolethylene seeping into wells near the airport was a harmless industrial solvent. It turned out to be a suspected carcinogen, and high numbers of southsiders who drank from those wells developed cancer, lupus, congenital heart disease and other ailments.
Today, contending with toxic beryllium, the folks at PDEQ seem well-intentioned, but share one mantra: "Our hands are tied." Brush Wellman is well within the legal limit of beryllium emissions.
Or so they say.
Brush is only required to test their emissions once a year, at which time they hire their own consultant to do a stack test and forward its results to PDEQ. But Brush has a history of regulatory abuse.
Last year the Toledo Blade ran a heavily researched and damning six-part story on the beryllium death toll in plants across America, with a focus on the four Brush Wellman facilities in Ohio. All together, hundreds have died and over a thousand people live with painful and incurable illness. Workers knew they were dealing with a dangerous substance, but were assured that government standards would protect them. Surrounding neighbors were also told that emission levels were safe.
By the early '70s, in light of the mounting cases of berylliosis, regulators pushed to lower the exposure levels. In the mid-'80s there was another urgent move to set safer limits. Brush actively blocked these efforts, according to the Toledo Blade.
The newspaper reported that the federal government and Brush Wellman knew about the high risk but put off telling workers and communities. In 1989 scientist Meril Eisenbud told Brush that he could no longer defend the beryllium standard that resulted from his own 1949 research. Yet not until 1994 did the Department of Energy quietly begin working to create a much lower beryllium standard in government-owned plants.
Meanwhile, back in 1980, Brush was recruited to Pima County by the Tucson Economic Development Council, which expected the company to bring higher-paying high-technology jobs. Nobody asked about the numerous hazardous violations the EPA was documenting in Ohio.
On February 23, 1994, excessive amounts of beryllium leaked from Brush's South Tucson Boulevard plant, but, again, few questions were asked. There's no telling when the leak started or how long it lasted.
By the time the feds came to do a soil check, any toxic dust was long gone. Unlike Ohio's soil, our dry desert dirt is constantly in flux. And, until an internal PDEQ memo recently leaked out, no one even knew that PDEQ's field inspectors were so nervous about toxic levels outside the plant that they refused, even with respirators, to take samples. Instead, Brush was directed to gather samples in its own containers. PDEQ's original field report on that "upset" is missing.
Steve Chernin believes there's too much potential risk to children attending the schools around Brush Wellman. As president of the Sunnyside Classified Employees Union, he took this issue to the National Education Association conference in July. The group adopted a resolution to demand zero beryllium emissions in all school, neighborhood and business zones, and will begin its lobbying efforts soon.
Kevin Keithly, Brush Wellman's general manager in Tucson, declined to comment on the coming week's permit hearing, but provided an eight-sentence statement with the following words in bold letters: "We voluntarily hold ourselves to a higher performance standard than is reflected in our air permit from PDEQ."
Richard Grimaldi, director of the PDEQ, says he has "the utmost respect for the comments that people have been sending in. Honestly, they bring up important issues. But we cannot lower the emission standard. If Brush meets the federal requirements, we're obligated to issue them a permit."
But the Pima County Board of Supervisors' hands are not tied. By passing a rule change, the supes can lower emission levels in all future air permits. The August 9 hearing could be the first step toward better protection of the community's health.