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Guest opinion

Beryllium plant: Public needs to speak out about their environment

The Pima County Department of Environmental Quality recently held an open house on the Materion Ceramics, Inc., to get public comment on the proposed revision of their air quality permit.

The Materion plant, the nation's largest manufacturer of beryllium oxide products, is located at 6100 S. Tucson Blvd., north of Valencia Road, in a residential neighborhood with numerous nearby schools. Materion, formerly known as Brush Ceramics and Brush Wellman, opened its ceramics manufacturing plant in Tucson in 1980. Since then, at least 35 of their Tucson employees have developed chronic beryllium disease, and at least 5 have died. People had fears and concerns that the risk posed by the Brush Wellman plant isn't limited to its employees.

I wrote a letter to Ursula Nelson, director of PDEQ, on this issue, which stated that this situation was no different than the brownfields matter, the TCE contamination, Tucson's Pioneer Paint, the toxic materials in the ground at the Park Avenue-Euclid area and the 1.4 dioxane contamination — examples of ongoing issues which have continued monitoring by government and participation and involvement from citizen's alike.

The other health situations referenced earlier in the letter I sent were not discovered solely on the site of the businesses involved. These situations have gone on for more than two decades because the problems have not been fully resolved. Oversight continues by various governmental departments, such as PDEQ and citizens, such as the United Community Advisory Board for example, to ensure that the work needed for these problems continues and that one day, these situations are finally resolved.

How does the Materion situation differ then? It doesn't. A problem still exists and for which the company has had a monitoring system on its grounds, in addition to the independent monitors. There had been detections off site from the plant itself and the company was forced to comply with county health regulations and federal worker compensation rules, paying fines from transgressions they made.

PDEQ has previously ruled that an outside measure, such as the independent monitoring devices, were needed and that the county needed to conduct the study. The PDEQ website states that PDEQ monitors for six criteria pollutants in the Tucson and Green Valley area in accordance to the regulations established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The ultimate goal of the PDEQ, their web page states, is an air quality control program is to reduce the concentration of harmful air contaminants in ambient air to safe and healthy levels, and maintain those levels. A key process in controlling air pollution is to define the nature and extent of air quality problems through monitoring.

How then is the Materion situation different then? It isn't. The other monitoring conducted by your department is funded by the county, state and/or federal government and citing financial issues is not a relevant point to make in terms of the health and well being of the population. If there is funding to purchase land for soccer fields or to build an auto racing track, there is funding to continue the study and independent monitoring.

The South Side has endured so much, families losing loved ones and lands contaminated. This problem has not been resolved and the county study must continue and a form of independent monitoring must be in place. Beryllium is no different that the 1.4 dioxane, Pioneer Paint, TCE, or the Park-Euclid plume. Oversight must continue.

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PDEQ's Nelson will decide whether to approve the permit. If she does, the monitoring study the county has run for more than seven years for the site will be finalized, and the monitors will be shut down.

It is important that Ward 5 residents, as well as across our city and area, weigh in on this issue and speaking out for our environment and community. People can give public comment online, email Nelson, or mail in their comments to Ursula Nelson, PDEQ, 33 North Stone Ave., Tucson, Arizona, 85701.

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