Meet the Neighbors

A developer has big plans for land near Brush Wellman's southside factory

It had been three years--and at least one well-documented death of a Brush Wellman worker--since the last blowout hearing about the dangers of beryllium at the southside maker of ceramics and components that are used in electronics.

Rosa Maldonado, 56, was gone; she'd died a victim of the horrid chronic beryllium disease, on May 7, 2003, four months before Sunnyside neighbors, environmentalists, Pima County bureaucrats and a few politicians gathered to address the long-delayed revisions to Brush's air-quality permit. (See "Something in the Air," Tucson Weekly, Feb. 13, 2003, and "Passing On," Tucson Weekly, May 22, 2003.)

As he had done in a hearing three years earlier, environmentalist Brian Blank rose to testify, this time saying, "I don't think that Brush should be granted any kind of permit in the interest of public safety. And this is based on soil testing that was done in 1999 by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality."

Wind blows northwest, Blank said. And along with it, beryllium.

"It went through the air. Beryllium doesn't get up and walk across the street to the vacant lot. This is residentially zoned and may some day have homes."

That day has come.

Despite government's business-as-usual, operate-as-usual attitude toward Brush Wellman and the long air quality permit extensions granted to the company, residential development didn't seem imminent. The property had been sold in 1998 for $3.6 million by Southwest Value Partners--the group headed by Robert Sarver, the young and financially talented investor who last year purchased the Phoenix Suns--to a group that included Tucson's leading real estate speculator, Donald R. Diamond, according to trust and county property records.

Even with the favorable city rezoning that Southwest Value Partners won 10 years ago, and a push for so-called infill projects that don't stretch the city's limits, new subdivisions seemed far off.

Diamond has the particular strength to hold parcels, but his group sold the land to homebuilder D.R. Horton last November for $8.14 million, documents in the county recorder's office show.

Trac II Construction crews, operating on grading permit issued by the city Feb. 6, have graded the desert scrub north of Brush Wellman's Brush Ceramics Products at South Tucson Boulevard and East Bilby Road, and now are sculpting streets, drainage and lots for 595 homes within 115 acres.

Pat Birnie of the Environmental Justice Action Group joined Blank and others at those repeat hearings on Brush's county air quality permit.

"It is difficult," she said at the last hearing, "to make meaningful comments on a document that legalizes the release of a known poison, beryllium, to our community. I cannot accept anything but zero release of beryllium to the workers and the community."

The grading and cutting of 160,000 cubic yards of dirt in preparation for 595 homes in D.R. Horton's Tres Pueblos subdivision across the street from Brush Ceramics may not have surprised Birnie, but she still finds it shocking.

"I think it's a very poor place to put homes," Birnie told the Weekly. "It is far too risky to put homes next to a plant that is permitted to emit beryllium oxide, a very toxic compound."

D.R. Horton's Tucson boss, Tom Williams, did not respond to Weekly messages.

Brush officials have consistently said that their plant, opened with the help of city incentives in 1979, is safe. Emissions of beryllium, they say, are under amounts allowed by federal standards.

But those standards--10 grams a day--are outdated and were promulgated, Birnie said, during World War II.

"The standards set for safe emissions of beryllium," Birnie told county regulators, "were established in the 1940s when the United States was at war, and beryllium was an essential ingredient in U.S. weapons production."

U.S. Rep Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who kept on eye on Brush Wellman during his four terms on the Board of Supervisors, said two soil tests in 1999 on property north of the plant showed high levels of beryllium. He said in an interview that he is not hopeful the federal Environmental Protection Agency will take action to make sure there is no recurrence.

Birnie and others have pushed for tougher standards and a tougher stance by the county on Brush Wellman, citing three peculiar circumstances: Brush's proximity to Sunnyside schools, the area's predominant minority population and the history of toxic contamination that large parts of Sunnyside and the southside have already suffered through, thanks to trichloroethylene pollution from Hughes Aircraft, the precursor to bomb-maker Raytheon, and the Air Force.

The Environmental Justice Action Group has pushed the county to require zero beryllium emissions and assert that workers could be protected by "glove-box" procedures used in production of plutonium. The group wants frequent, unannounced emissions testing by government rather than the inspections that are prearranged by the company twice a year. Ambient air monitor stations should be set up beyond the company property and paid for by Brush Wellman. And the group wants continuous monitoring of the Brush Wellman stack, health testing for chronic beryllium disease for all Sunnyside students, teachers and workers, and for Brush Wellman to cover health care costs for those diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

Wipe tests in December at Sunnyside High School's administration office, a half-mile northwest of Brush Ceramic Products, showed higher levels of toxic beryllium than at the school district's air monitoring sites. Monique Soria, the district's spokeswoman, said results from re-testing are not yet available.

John Scheatzle, general manager of Brush Ceramic Products, said the wipe tests are unreliable and that the company has had clean emissions tests for five years.

Christine Ronquillo is pleading for the county to remember her mother-in-law, Rosa Maldonado.

"I don't want my kids near this factory," Ronquillo told county officials. "Too many kids are at risk. Rosa Maldonado lost her life too young. My kids lost their grandmother."

Drafts of the proposed air quality permit attempt to strengthen controls on Brush Wellman. But the company has repeatedly slowed passage while providing comment to the county. County officials will open the proposed regulations to public review before final adoption.

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