Next Door to Poison

Some fear history may be repeating itself when it comes to toxins on the southside

Couples with young children recently wandered through model homes in the Tres Pueblos subdivision off South Tucson Boulevard. The 595-lot subdivision is located across Bilby Road from the Brush Ceramic Products plant.

On the same hot afternoon, hundreds of people were gathering a few blocks away at Sunnyside High School. They were there to hear the final details of a lawsuit that was filed after high levels of the suspected carcinogen TCE started being found in their drinking water more than 20 years ago.

The state of Arizona had earlier adopted standards for TCE in drinking water which were not to be exceeded. Tragically, for many years, the standards weren't met across a wide swath of Tucson's southside, even though some local government officials repeatedly insisted they had been.

"We trusted the government too much," recalls Rose Augustine, one of those who led the struggle to clean up the water while pushing for compensation for affected families. "We thought the Pima County Health Department was out to protect the health of people."

The early 1980s was also the time when Brush opened its Tucson facility, utilizing beryllium in its production process. According to the federal government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), up to 15 percent of people exposed to the metal or its dust become sensitive to it, "and may develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD), an irreversible and sometimes fatal scarring of the lungs."

That is exactly what happened to three dozen employees of Brush, at least one of whom has died.

Despite that, the plant continues to operate, and the vacant land just north of the facility was subdivided in 2005; houses are now being built. But according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, home buyers have nothing to worry about from the beryllium used at Brush.

Based on existing federal government standards along with tests conducted in 1999 and 2000 around the site, ADHS in a report last year classified the plant as "no apparent public health hazard." In addition, the study states: "Children will not be adversely affected by the levels of beryllium found at the Brush Ceramic Products site or adjacent area."

City Councilman Steve Leal, who represents the neighborhood, disagrees. "I'm not comfortable with the state report," he says. Pointing out the federal figures were devised for adults, not children, Leal also doubts the validity of the standards--which were promulgated 60 years ago.

Eric Betterton of the UA, a consultant to the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PDEQ) on the Brush beryllium issue, thinks the idea to revise federal standards has some merit.

Meanwhile, Pima County is "pretty close" to reissuing an air quality permit to Brush, according to Frances Dominguez, media contact for PDEQ. She firmly believes her agency has listened to people during the review process.

"We take (the public's) concerns seriously," Dominguez says, "and have been very responsive to them. I've been involved with this issue since 1999 and been to all the meetings. My kids went to Sunnyside High School."

Pat Birnie, a member of the Environmental Justice Action Group, which has opposed Brush's operation, has cautionary words about the government's role in cases like this.

"Many agencies which were set up to protect the health of people," Birnie says, "instead protect corporations. That doesn't give people a whole lot of confidence."

John Scheatzle, the general manager of Brush Ceramics, says people are acting paranoid. "There is no beryllium issue, except in the mind of activists. ... After 25 years, there's no evidence it has had any impact at all. ... (There's) absolutely no shred of evidence to show it had any impact on the community."

When asked about the impact beryllium had on injured and deceased Brush employees, Scheatzle responds: "We were always obeying the law. New information showed we weren't protective enough, so we took proactive steps which have been extremely successful. But that's not the neighborhood issue."

David Greenberg of D.R. Horton, which is building Tres Pueblos, declined to comment.

As homes go up in the subdivision, and more and more families with children move in, Augustine has advice for them: "People need to pay attention," she says. "We can't afford to have more children poisoned."

To address concerns like that, this summer, the ATSDR will be offering voluntary blood tests around a Brush facility in Elmore, Ohio. Although opposed by company officials and some local politicians, the agency intends to conduct the tests "to provide a community service to people ... who remain concerned about past beryllium exposures and their health."

Leal and Birnie both believe the same procedure should be employed in Tucson, while Scheatzle wouldn't comment. The plant manager did say, however, that the Weekly hasn't been balanced in its coverage of Brush in the past (See "Get Out of Town," Dec. 15, 2005).

In a faxed statement, Scheaztle also adds: "We can say with confidence that it is safe to live near Brush Wellman. It is safe, because we work hard every day to make it safe."

For now, prospective buyers in the Tres Pueblos subdivision are told by salespeople, "We want to put you into these homes."

Potential purchasers are also provided with a report prepared by the Arizona Department of Real Estate. Among 12 pages of text, two paragraphs spell out that the Brush facility is next door, that it uses beryllium and that the Arizona Department of Health Services has prepared a study about it.

Those interested in the subdivision will also find four people to contact for additional information on the beryllium issue. But the report only provides mailing addresses, and Dominguez concedes no one has called her boss, one of those listed.

From her perspective, wrapping the TCE issue and the Tres Pueblos subdivision together, Rose Augustine predicts ominously: "History will repeat itself."

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