The Brush Up

A local lawmaker shows she's not afraid of a little beryllium

Brush Ceramic Products, where beryllium oxide has permanently injured dozens of employees, led to the deaths of others and may threaten neighborhood schools, is retooling its message in hopes of projecting an image as a cautious and caring southside partner.

The spin was given full display last week at a study session of the Sunnyside Unified School District governing board, which was slapped with the cold reality that beryllium was found a half-mile from Brush Ceramic Products in the Sunnyside High School administration building.

The Brush Ceramic video and its corporate boasting of new involvement in the southside community--from participating in a neighborhood association cleanup to joining an annual Christmas bicycle benefit for children in need--also came as scrapers and graders shift the earth north of the plant for 596 homes.

There was no louder champion for Brush Ceramic Products than Linda Lopez, the Sunnyside School Board member and Democratic member of the state House of Representatives.

"Many, many changes have been made at Brush Ceramics, and they're the first to admit that there were problems going on before at Brush Ceramics about how employees were protected or actually not protected," Lopez said to a near-capacity hearing room. "Things have changed at Brush Ceramics, and if you go there, you will see what they have put in place."

Lopez gave a blow-by-blow account of her visit, a description that had some people laughing and others shaking their heads.

"I went through the same procedure that the employees follow when they visit that plant. I went and I had to change my clothing from my street clothing into a uniform. At that point, I moved into another area where I put on protective gear, clothing; my shoes were covered. Then I had to wear the mask throughout my entire tour there. I put on another pair of gloves. It is very well-protected. When I came back out, after I visited and toured the plant, and believe me it is very interesting and very informative, and you only got a touch tonight of the kinds of things they do there and what they supply to the world--our community to the world--but when I came back through, I did go through the air tunnel or whatever you call it (and) stood there. It wasn't just like you walk through. You stand there, and you're moving around, you know, exposing parts of your body to make sure that the dust is blown off of it.

"And then you come out, you take off all of your clothes, and I took a shower. I took a shower before I went back into the changing room, into the locker room and put my own clothes back on. So that's the procedure that's followed for the employees there."

Lopez also guided consultants and Pima County officials along in their testimony in an attempt to show testing, from the four air-quality monitors the Sunnyside School District has set up in schools and the transportation facility, revealed below-standard levels.

Aiding a nervous James Stephens of Applied Environmental, Lopez asked, "How much below the standard?"

Stephens: "Uh, I don't know it off hand. When we graph it out, the limits are up here, but you all are down here. But it's, you know, quite a bit lower."

Lopez: "O.K., several hundred percent is my understanding."

And when consultants and Richard Grimaldi, a top official with the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, didn't give Lopez a clear enough answer about the wipe test that showed beryllium in December at the Sunnyside High School administration building, she led them through a path of denials.

"That swipe," Lopez queried Stephens, "you can't really tell if that was the naturally occurring beryllium or the beryllium oxide that can cause medical problems?

In his halting delivery, Stephens said no and then suggested that it could be the result of 20 years of dust, to which environmentalists and others in the audience scoffed. One said that Sunnyside custodians did a better job than to allow a 20-year accumulation of dust in buildings.

Neither Brush's new public-relations effort nor Lopez impressed Joe Borboa, a Sunnyside schools parent.

Brush will do whatever the federal, state and local governments minimally require, Borboa said. "And government is not always right," Borboa added later, citing the example of Vioxx and other arthritis medicines that were given quick approval only to be shown they cause dangerous side effects.

"I find it insulting, comments about how much money they put into the community ... my child's life is a lot more valuable than any money they put into the community," Borboa said.

To Lopez, Borboa said: "I find you comments biased, very biased. You should have been working for these (Brush) guys. You seem to make statements to justify and back up what they say, and I find that personally insulting."

Besides the positive December wipe test, the beryllium issue at Brush Ceramic Products has been amplified by feverish earth-moving in preparation of a 596-home subdivision on 115 acres north of Brush plant.

The property was rezoned from residential to light industrial by a unanimous vote of the City Council in 1995. Property owners, including Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, delayed development and sold the property in 1998 for $3.6 million to a group that included Tucson real estate speculator Donald R. Diamond.

The latter group won repeated City Council approval for delays and gained ultimate City Council approval on Sept. 7 to change the zoning back to residential. Councilman Steve Leal, a Democrat, represents the area and has spoken for tougher emissions and workforce safety conditions at Brush Ceramics. He once termed the operation a "crap shoot" in terms of safety to employees and the public.

But Leal made the motion to replace the industrial zoning with the residential plan that is being implemented by D.R. Horton Homes, which paid $8.14 million for the property in November. The motion passed 6-0, with Republican Fred Ronstadt absent.

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