Casper Star-Tribune
Casper, Wyoming

04-Jun-2001 09:18

Rocky Flats lawsuit could reveal government cover-up

GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) - A lawsuit filed against the world's leading beryllium supplier alleges that the federal government knew the radioactive metal's harmful effect on workers but took little action.

Fifty Rocky Flats workers are suing Brush Wellman Inc., a Cleveland-based company, claiming it and the federal government conspired to hide information that showed federal workplace safety standards for beryllium did not protect workers.

The company shipped beryllium to Rocky Flats, where triggers for nuclear weapons were made. The Jefferson County trial is expected to begin Monday.

Brush Wellman maintains it did nothing wrong and researched the problem. "We intend to defend (ourselves) vigorously," said Patrick Carpenter, a Brush Wellman spokesman.

The lawsuit alleges that Brush Wellman has always known that workers could contract chronic beryllium disease, which afflicts the lungs, even from the most minute exposure.

A tentative workplace standard set in 1949 warned its guidelines might not protect all workers, Brush Wellman said in court documents. Several government documents, including reports in 1984 and 1986 also warn not all people will be protected by the federal standard.

Attorneys on both sides of the case declined to comment.

Internal company documents and declassified government material introduced in the case indicate that Brush Wellman knew as early as 1951 that workers were becoming sick when exposed to beryllium levels that were within the federal safety standard.

Workers allege the federal government allowed Brush Wellman to censor medical documents for years. For example, a report from Brush Wellman's medical director concluding that beryllium was one of the "most deadly (elements) known to mankind" was allegedly censored.

Dave Norgard, 45, is one of the plaintiffs afflicted with chronic beryllium disease.

"I would like to think that the average man and woman on the street and the working individual will be able to see the significance (of the documents). We are talking about something similar to what happened to smokers," Norgard said.

"To not know something and to try to do the best to find out is one thing. But to know something and to carry on as if nothing has happened is something else."

The metal has also been used in cars, cellphones, computers, bicycles, dental work and golf clubs. As many as 800,000 employees in a variety of industries could be working with the metal, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Across the country, Brush Wellman faces 71 lawsuits involving 192 plaintiffs, company spokesman Carpenter said. While some of the company's documents and declassified federal reports have been part of other lawsuits, those cases have not yet come before a jury.