BAY ST. LOUIS -It seemed simple: sell the four deteriorating Martin 404 twin-prop airplanes seized by the federal government that have sat on the north end of a runway at Stennis International Airport since late 1987 or early 1988.
It became less simple when a Hancock County resident who studies radioactivity as a hobby found "hot" instruments on the planes.
Opinions vary on whether the radioactivity is dangerous.
State officials have told the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, which oversees the airport and Port Bienville Industrial Park, that radiation levels from radium paint on the planes are too low to worry about.
Bob Goff, director of the state Department of Health in Jackson, sent a staff member to Stennis to do some measurements and take some samples in two of the planes.
"They were below the exempt quantity specified in the regulations," he said. "I don't think you're going to see a particular health problem. You'd almost have to inhale a whole lot of dust before it became a problem."
Even so, Goff said the department is encouraging airport director Bill Cotter to ask the federal agency that confiscated the planes to remove the radioactive material.
Loren Setlow, from the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., said scientists today know more about the dangers of radium than they used to.
"It's recognized as a hazardous substance," he said. "It's being dealt with as a waste. It's just something you don't want to sleep with or have in your back yard."
Commission wants planes gone
The planes have been a nuisance to the Port and Harbor Commission for some time.
Activity at the airport continues to grow, with an increase in the number of cargo flights landing there and Navy SEALS using the airport for training. An instrument landing system is being installed, and lighting and runway improvements are being made.
In mid-December, Anchor Services and Sales of Long Beach offered to remove two planes, then later agreed to take the other two.
Danny Ladnier of Anchor said he wasn't sure what he would do with the planes.
"I just bought them as an investment," he said.
Phil Rosen, who operates Southern All Metals Recycling Inc. in Bay St. Louis also was interested in the planes.
"You're looking at a lot of scrap aluminum there," he said.
He chose not to bid after calling several customers.
"The first one said he wouldn't be interested," Rosen said. "I called another broker. Same thing. Not interested. With the third broker, I asked why he wasn't interested. He said, 'Because we've found in the past that the old planes made in the '40s and '50s were radioactive.'"
Rosen had Thomas Toups of Shoreline Park, who has several instruments that measure radioactivity, check the planes.
Toups found radioactive material in two planes and is confident that the others are likewise contaminated because all are of the same vintage.
"That would be a hazard if you were to dismantle them," Rosen said. "And you can't fly them out of there."
"The concern I had was that if these things were scrapped and buried or crushed, you'd have a particulate hazard, and that can be hideously dangerous," Toups said. "It's probably a dozen times more dangerous than asbestos."
What is radium?
Uranium and radium are naturally occurring radioactive materials, which scientists call NORM. Uranium is the 48th most common element in Earth's crust. Radium is much rarer and is formed through the natural decay of uranium.
Radium 226, typically used for illumination in aircraft instrumentation 40 to 50 years ago, has a half-life of 1,620 years, while uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In comparison, plutonium - used in atomic bombs - has a half-life of 24,400 years. The shorter the half-life, the more radioactive a substance is.
Here's what Toups found:
Each plane has about 50 gauges and dozens of toggle switches. Some switches have radioactive, self-luminating tips; many of the gauges contain radioactive paint. The gamma radiation (similar to X-rays) produced by the cockpit instruments is strong enough to register on the aircraft's exterior with a sensitive detector.
Some instruments have been vandalized and their glass crystals have been broken. On one, a significant alpha radiation surface rate of 50,000 counts per minute was determined.
By way of comparison, an early vintage red Fiestaware piece - a type of dinnerware - with a radium paint glaze gives an alpha count of 2,000 counts per minute. Toups would not recommend that anyone eat from this type of plate, which was withdrawn from the market decades ago.
Ingestion, inhalation are hazards
Based on his studies, Toups said the greatest danger is the possible ingestion and inhalation hazard to workers or others who may unknowingly handle, disassemble or scrap these devices.
"The injury this could cause cannot be overstated, and as these paints age and their pigments and binders are subjected to decades of irradiation and environmental influences, they may become more prone to crumble and create minute particles," he said.
An alpha or beta emitter may lodge in the lung or other body tissue and continue to irradiate surrounding cells for decades, he said.
Alpha particle radiation is estimated to be 10 to 20 times more dangerous than gamma or X-ray radiation.
Toups noted that radioactive materials are all around us. Some homes have alarm clocks with radioactive material that were manufactured until the 1960s. Another example: A smoke detector has a radioactive emitter.
Environmental activist Bruce Northridge of Waveland said he's not concerned that radioactivity from the planes will harm his child or children in his neighborhood.
"What bothers me is that no one wants to take responsibility for advising a worker who comes in to remove planes that there's material in there that needs special care," Northridge said. "I would at least wear gloves and a mask and use a screwdriver instead of a hammer. The bottom line is, you don't want Joe Smith coming in with a hammer and saw and breaking them up."
Please see Airplanes, A-6
Continued from A-1