On the Defensive

Advocates fight for justice for victims of beryllium disease.

Mike Matulin did not attend the annual Brush Wellman dinner last Thursday at the Doubletree. He missed the fancy service and Chicken Arizona. He was spared the hypocrisy.

Every year Brush Wellman gets employees together who are sick or dying from chronic beryllium disease (CBD), contracted while working at Brush. But, according to some victims, the company doesn't care anything about these people. Even though they got sick making triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Even though they made this company rich. These folks are just cannon fodder, they claim. Brush feeds them, fields some questions, makes promises, and then forgets 'em for another year.

There are about 25, with new ones being diagnosed all the time. The company doesn't want to pay for its mistakes, the victims claim. It makes you beg for help, and that doesn't cover the bills. Most have to sue, and the cases drag on for years. Some plaintiffs have died. Brush Wellman doesn't care. It never lost a case in court.

Mike Matulin missed the dinner, but he will be at the meeting March 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Sunnyside High School auditorium. Chicken Arizona will not be served. Just the truth. Dr. Lisa Maier, physician and researcher from the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, will speak about the latest research on beryllium exposure and beryllium disease.

Mike Matulin has four children and a case of chronic beryllium disease, diagnosed about six years ago. He got this incurable, often fatal disease back in 1983 when he was grinding chunks of pure beryllium in a short-sleeve jumpsuit and no respirator. "They told us we were safe," he says. He was there for all of six months.

Matulin is scared of dying from CDB as much as anybody else. The illness drags out, like trying to get compensation from Brush Wellman or the government. You expire cell by cell, in a long, slow suffocation. In the end you die from something else. The drugs to help you breathe wreak havoc on other organs. Scarred-up lungs are prey to everything, including cancer.

In spite of supposed "safe" levels of beryllium, people who work with it keep getting sick.

Papers across the country have published the horror stories of what CBD victims and families endure. Last April, 20-20 took an in-depth look at the painful demise of employees who worked in beryllium fabrication plants, sanctioned by the U.S. government, which they were told were safe. Some employees with CBD never once had direct contact with beryllium, like Norma Flores, who worked in the front office of Brush Wellman here in town. Flores and others have given poignant interviews in the past three years. They are like the walking dead, but their tragedies don't seem to have touched the policy makers here or in Washington.

Experts, including Maier and the past directors of the Department of Energy and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have warned that emissions both within and without beryllium fabrication plants are too high. But nothing has changed. Brush Wellman has outdated yet politically correct emission levels on its side. It has the military and its government lobbyists on its side. Now, in the wake of the Cold War, Brush is moving into civilian markets; the company is starting to work with the rising star of Tucson's economic development, the optics cluster. And where Brush ventures, as Maier will explain on March 6, the terrible dangers of beryllium exposure go with it.

Most of the plaintiffs who contracted CBD at Tucson's Brush Wellman plant are afraid to speak out. They have lawsuits pending, medical bills unpaid. They can't afford to alienate the company, even if the money they get is barely enough to keep them breathing. Their lips are sealed. Until recently these Cold War warriors actually had to fight the United States government to be recognized.

Last year, under President Clinton, the DOE finally pushed for a plan to compensate CBD victims. If it passes, victims could receive $150,000. That is, if they're willing to drop all lawsuits.

Mike Matulin is different. He speaks out constantly, because people need to know that a lot of defense workers have been betrayed. And neighborhoods, too. He says Brush Wellman vented beryllium illegally for years out of its clothes drier before a county environmental quality inspector wrote it up last September. Other employees agree, but remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Mike Matulin fears that five to 20 years down the road, adults who once played on Sunnyside School District playgrounds and fields are going to start getting sick, and local doctors will treat them for asthma or some other disease not knowing the symptoms of CBD. Matulin was sick four years before his blood work came back positive for CBD.

This problem becomes more of a puzzle if a person worked briefly or never at all in a beryllium plant. Yet there is another, even more compelling reason for Dr. Maier's visit: prevention.

Last August, during a public hearing on Brush Wellman's air quality permit, concerned citizens urged that county government look more closely at the "unusual local conditions" (six schools and a superfund site in the area), and move to get beryllium emissions as close to zero as possible. People spoke out about the need to do more independent stack tests and health screening for those living, working or going to school near Brush Wellman.

Almost seven months and two violations later, Ursula Kramer, director of the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PDEQ), states that Brush's permit will be issued soon. While the company will be asked to do four annual stack tests instead of one, it continues conducting the tests itself. This is bad news for environmental activists, but it does no good to "shoot" PDEQ. The agency is just the messengers with two irreconcilable mandates from The Elected: 1) do nothing to impact any company's financial well-being; 2) do everything to make sure we don't pay fines for violating the Clean Air Act. When there's a clash between economic development and public health, the basic charter of government too often vanishes into thin (and often toxic) air.

Maier has been a part of the world's leading research team on beryllium exposure and disease. On March 6, she will help educate the surrounding community in ways it can protect itself from beryllium. It's clear from the lack of justice given CBD victims, the lack of change in the allowable levels of beryllium, and continued beryllium accidents that Tucsonans cannot wait for the government to take care of them.

Chronic beryllium disease may not be in your house or neighborhood, but it should weigh on the conscience of every Tucsonan. Why is Mike Matulin's anger not being heard? Or Norma's pain? Perhaps Lisa Maier's research will penetrate the self-interest, and make us demand that government get back to the basics of protecting the health and safety of its people. If that is not in our national interest, could some politician please have the courage to stand up and tell us what is?

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