The Pilot's Lounge #96: Bureaucrats Or Radium Dials -- Which Poses A Greater Danger?

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This is a tale of the big bully versus the little guy. It's a true tale. And the little guy is losing really badly. What's more, the big bully may come after your aiplane or your museum next. AVweb's Rick Durden has the story in The Pilot's Lounge.

One of the nice things about the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport is that I get to stay in touch with some very interesting pilots. One of my favorite people on the planet is a guy I've flown with off and on for over 20 years. Among other things, he is considered to be one of the gurus for those seeking knowledge regarding one of the classier of aviation's classic airplanes, the Cessna 195. His name is Jeff Pearson, and he flies out of the Chino, Calif., Airport, where I go as often as I can afford it to get my big-time, historic-airplane fix. Watching those machines snort and bellow does wonders for one's perspective on the world.

Unfortunately, Jeff is trapped in a situation that is so hideous and Kafkaesque that I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. (Actually, I would, because it's truly, truly nasty.) What is frightening beyond his personal tragedy is the potential ramification for the entire historic-aviation community. If some very powerful bureaucrats who have had their way in the actions they are taking against a legitimate seller of U.S. military-surplus aircraft instruments continue to expand their horizons, it can lead to the condemnation and destruction of every airplane and museum in the U.S. that has or ever had any radium-dial instruments in it.

Do I have your attention?

Historic Aircraft Business

A little background is in order. Jeff Pearson moved to southern California about 25 years ago to continue his career in the aircraft parts business. While working for a company that sold and overhauled instruments, he often dealt with owners of antique and classic aircraft who needed original instruments to make their pride and joy as accurate as possible. Jeff came to know a pretty unique guy, Alec Fulks, who had a very large warehouse stuffed full of instruments in North Hollywood, not far from Burbank Airport. Mr. Fulks had purchased most of these instruments from our U. S. government as it sold them off in the massive public surplus sales following the end of World War II. Those instruments had originally been manufactured for the Army and Navy to specifications set out by the U.S. government. That's an important fact to remember. In fact it's vital to this entire sordid tale of persecution of a guy who happened to engage in the heinous practice of buying, selling and preserving original instruments and related equipment for historically significant airplanes.

Back in late 1910s -- a.k.a., the dim, dark past (no pun intended) -- aircraft electrical and related lighting systems were far less-than perfect or just plain non-existent. In order to help pilots see their instruments while flying at night, a very small amount of radium was added to phosphorescent paint on the faces of instruments. The radioactive decay of radium caused the phosphorescent paint to glow in the dark. Charles Lindbergh sat behind military-type, radium-illuminated instruments when he flew solo from New York to Paris. They are still installed in the Spirit of St. Louis in the National Air and Space Museum.

Radium is an unstable element, so it is in a constant state of radioactive decay. Eventually radium decays into lead, among other things. As it decays, radium emits Gamma energy (radiation) and also radon gas. Radon gives off what your neighborhood nuclear physicist refers to as Alpha and Beta "daughter" particles. With a sufficiently sensitive Geiger counter, Gamma radiation is detectable even through a metal or plastic instrument case and glass bezel. Alpha and Beta radiation is another thing. It requires ultra sensitive, highly specialized detectors that virtually no one outside of the immediate Nuclear Physics industry has even heard of.

Radiation has long been linked to cancer in humans; after all, Madame Marie Curie, for whom a measurement of radioactivity was named, died of cancer believed to be a result of her experiments with large quantities of radium. It has to be kept in mind that the amount of radium used in radium dial instruments is miniscule. The U.S. government has been sued by technicians who alleged they contracted cancers due to exposure to radium while working on U.S. military-origin radium-dial instrumentation. The United States has successfully defended itself in those cases by showing that the cancers suffered by the plaintiffs could not have been caused by radium dial instrumentation because there was insufficient exposure to radium.

Double Standard

Despite our government's approach to defending claims of those who worked very closely with radium dial instrumentation, bureaucrats in other agencies have now decided that this instrumentation is a heinous risk to people with far less intimate contact. There is no doubt that an instrument with a radium-dial face may emit radon gas if the case is not hermetically sealed; that is, if the glass is cracked or the ports on the back are not sealed.

There is no hard-and-fast law in the U.S. for maximum levels of radon gas, merely guidelines. For your home, 4 pico-curies per liter of air is the EPA-recommended limit. If that level is reached, the solution is to ventilate the area. For industrial buildings, 100 pico-curies/liter of air is the OSHA limit. In the warehouse in North Hollywood, a site one would certainly consider "other than residential," the level never exceeded 100 pico-curies per liter of air, even without forced ventilation.

For your consideration, there are those who feel that radon exposure has some health benefits. I express no opinion, but I do note that our government allows the Merry Widow Health Mine to operate in Basin, Mont., where folks pay good money to enter the mine and be exposed to 1,300 pico-curies/liter of air.

It just seems to me that there ought to be some definitive standards, based on science, to keep bureaucrats from arbitrarily and capriciously deciding that aircraft instruments are now some sort-of hideous national menace. That is especially important when the government has asserted in court that painting radium-dial instruments does not provide enough exposure to cause cancer. One would think that there should be consistency on the part of the government, especially when it caused these instruments to be manufactured in the first place. Further, federal and state codes specifically exempt intact, radium-dialed instruments from regulation when in their intended use. By the same token, radium-dial watches, clocks and even granite counter tops are unregulated.

Government Production

In the process of trying to make a good-faith estimate as to just how long World War II and the Korean War would last, and the number of airplanes that would be needed -- as well as the number of spares required -- our government bought far more aircraft instruments than it turned out to need, especially during World War II. I'm glad, I'm very glad, that we over-estimated, rather than under-estimated. It helped us win.

At some point our government recognized that it had far more aircraft instruments than it could ever use, and began to sell them off to the general public at auction. It made sense: They were perfectly good aircraft instruments that could be used on civilian airplanes for the predicted general-aviation boom, as well as the surplus military airplanes being sold, and it helped the government recoup some of the cost of designing and making the instruments. This, too, is significant. The government not only specified how the instruments would be made, with radium dials for night operations, but then sold them to the public in conditions that ranged from new-unused to disassembled or repairable "core." They also sold tons upon tons of parts that, you guessed it, included brand-new radium dials and pointers.

Those surplus instruments were used in the manufacture of new general aviation airplanes well into the 1980s. I am told that a widely used, WWII-vintage, temperature indicator is still the basis of an instrument currently installed on some general aviation airplanes.

At no time did our government tell the pilots and mechanics involved with these instruments (as used by our armed forces) that there was anything dangerous about them. Further, it then sold the instruments on the open market as safe for use in aircraft that carried, and were maintained by, human beings.

Radium-dial instruments were built to government specs well into the 1970s and were sold as surplus into the '80s. My sources were not clear as to whether such surplus sales continue to this date, although it may be the case.

Next Generation

By the 1990s, Mr. Fulks had a huge inventory of instruments and was feeling his age. He sought out Jeff Pearson as a possible buyer. After negotiations, he sold them to the company Jeff had formed, Preservation Aviation. Preservation also took over Mr. Fulks' lease for the North Hollywood warehouse facilities.

Preservation Aviation became what is known as a "buyer in good faith." Jeff's company didn't manufacture the radium-dial instruments that made up about 5% of the inventory he bought, and our government hadn't put out any sort of word that these instruments were about to become persons-non-grata. The instruments were sold legally to Mr. Fulks and he sold them legally to Preservation Aviation.

Jeff bought some "rope." Legally. Legitimately. He had no idea that the government was going to decide that about 5% of the rope was illegal to own and then confiscate every foot of it and use it to hang him.

Shortly after Jeff acquired the instruments and the warehouse lease, I visited. I was utterly overwhelmed. It was an aviation treasure-trove. I spent hours and hours exploring. I was a kid in a candy store. I saw instruments from the 1920s that I'd only read about; my gawd, I held an earth-inductor compass in my hand. Lindbergh used one to navigate across the Atlantic. No one knows what they are today. It was as if I'd died and gone to aeronautical heaven. There were instruments from immediately after WWI in original boxes. I went back to visit the magic warehouse as often as I could, even though I lived 1,500 miles away. During one of my visits a customer came in needing period instruments for his 1943 Boeing Stearman. The customer had the manuals for his airplane, with pictures and part numbers of the instruments. He wanted originals. Jeff had them. In their original boxes. Preservation Aviation was able to outfit both cockpits precisely as they were when the airplane rolled out of the factory in Wichita. (Once the instruments were selected, Jeff sent them out for overhaul and calibration because they'd been sitting in the boxes for decades.)

Preservation Aviation acquired a reputation for being able to supply original instruments for even the most rare airplanes. As its reputation grew and because Jeff had to commute from his home not far from Chino to North Hollywood, he moved a portion of his inventory to his hangar at Chino to keep from having to go to the warehouse every day. (I was there. Drive time for the commute was about 2.5 hours one way; if he flew the 195 to Burbank and then used the '68 Ford Country Squire Wagon -- which was also part of the warehouse inventory -- for the drive from Burbank airport to the warehouse, he could make it in about 30 minutes.)

The Going Gets Weird

In 1999 Jeff called me to say that the California Department of Health Services, Radiologic Health Branch, came to the warehouse expressing concern about radium-dial instruments on the premises. This set a process in motion that seems to have no end -- even almost eight years later -- and thus far has resulted in the destruction of over one million (yes, one million) irreplaceable historic aircraft instruments and related parts, only a tiny fraction of which had any radium. It has also resulted in the razing of one of two warehouses that housed the items since the 1950s. So far, the cost of the "cleanup" has exceeded $7 million and the bill is being presented to Jeff, personally, even though it was a lawfully incorporated company that owned the instruments. Under the law, he cannot even protect his house and family by declaring bankruptcy, so our government has inventoried his house and its contents for possible seizure and sale.

Now are you paying attention?

The indications are that the folks who did this have used Jeff Pearson as a warm-up to come after anyone who has a radium-dial instrument, including museums, because Jeff didn't have and couldn't obtain the political clout to stop them. They have already started the same despicable process against an 85-year old surplus dealer in Salisbury, Md., over surplus involving radium that he purchased from the very entity that caused the material to be created and then sold to the public.

When the California Department of Health Services first came to speak to Jeff in 1999, the individual assigned to the task seemed reasonable. Jeff was told that all non-intact radium devices had to be containerized and disposed of as hazardous waste. The DHS bureaucrat (his term for himself) also kindly advised Jeff that "programs" existed through which the Department of Defense (DoD) would take care of disposing the offending items.

That made sense. Of course, the bureaucrat's word turned out to be no good. In a subsequent visit, Jeff was informed that all radium instruments had to be disposed of, not just non-intact items. First Jeff would have to complete a special training course and he would be allowed to remove the non-radium inventory. Jeff took and passed the course.

Jeff also contacted DoD officials, who had no knowledge of any "programs" by which they would assume any responsibility for the materials. This revelation was duly passed along to the DHS agent. Jeff even suggested that DHS assist in having the DoD step up to its responsibility for the instruments it created.

Unfortunately, that approach to the matter of potential radioactive instruments must have made way too much sense, because that state inspector was immediately sent to some other assignment, to be replaced by a fellow whose behavior almost defied description.

This was occurring at a facility where only 5% of the inventory contained radium-dial instruments and only 5% of those instruments were non-intact. The radon level was below the guideline for an industrial setting; however, because that was a guideline, the new bureaucrat's interpretation was effectively law. There was no independent third-party to make rulings on the bureaucrat's interpretations; the bureaucrat was prosecutor, judge and jury and his interpretation of the guidelines changed constantly.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Once Jeff had jumped through the training course that was the prerequisite to him separating out the non-radium instruments, the bureaucrat announced he could not do so: Jeff could not take out any of the inventory.

Next the bureaucrat told Jeff he was going to have to get a license to handle radioactives. Jeff got an attorney and learned that no instrument shop, repair or seller or museum holding or working on radium-dial instruments in the State of California was required to get such a license. And no jeweler, who also handles radium, was ever required to get such a license. The bureaucrat who insisted on a license also said it was unlikely Jeff could get one, so Jeff, on advice of counsel, did not immediately apply.

The new DHS bureaucrat arranged for someone from the DoD to visit. The representative, from the Navy, took a look and said, "It's all ours." He also admitted that the DoD did dispatch technicians to retrieve hazardous material of military origin discovered in the public environment and that the Air Force was going around and quietly removing radium instruments from its on-loan display aircraft and the "gate guardians" outside military bases.

About then the DHS brought in the federal Environmental Protection Agency for a walk-through. The EPA reps said that if they got involved, things "would get ugly." It was one of the few truths uttered by a bureaucrat during the entire persecution.

Jeff continued to try to have the DHS work with him to have the DoD buy back the inventory, and he went to Congressman John Calvert asking for help. In a face-to-face meeting, Congressman Calvert told Jeff this was something for the DoD to handle and then wrote to the DoD. The Department of Defense responded to the Congressman by saying that since it didn't sell the instruments directly to Mr. Pearson, it wasn't responsible. Congressman Calvert then stepped away from the situation.

Bring In The Feds

The DHS response to Jeff's continued efforts to have the DoD step up to its responsibility was to inform Jeff he had to get a license or it would turn matters over to the EPA. At the same time the DHS hit him with a cease-and-desist order -- barring him access to the warehouse and its inventory, even non-radium-dial instruments -- and it raided his hangar at the Chino Airport. Jeff had to hire a health physicist to test the Chino inventory for contamination before it could be removed. The physicist told Jeff that in over 40 years he'd never seen the DHS go this far overboard.

Jeff decided to apply for the license. So the bureaucrat promptly told Jeff that he would have to obtain a multi-million-dollar bond for "cleanup" before getting the license. He then said he'd give Jeff time to get the license, but meantime the warehouse was completely sealed off and no one was allowed to enter, unless wearing hazmat suits -- for a radon exposure level less than is allowed in industry. (All previous entry had been in street clothes.)

Jeff made an appointment with the DHS head of licensure in Sacramento, who informed him that he certainly could get a license and that there was no bond requirement.

Before the scheduled appointment with the head of licensure, the DHS bureaucrat apparently realized that Jeff might be able to jump this last hurdle that the bureaucrat had erected and took action to keep Jeff from ever recovering any of his inventory: He brought in the EPA, which declared the warehouse completely contaminated. Then, without any testing of the instruments themselves, they hauled every single instrument to a hazardous waste site and destroyed them. No one, neither the EPA nor the State bureaucrat, ever tested the thousands of historic aircraft instruments that were destroyed. They simply said, "We believe they are contaminated," and destroyed unused antique artifacts. Despite being in a warehouse with a radon level below the guideline for an industrial area, the EPA -- without compensating Preservation Aviation -- trashed several million dollars worth of historic airplane instruments. Only 5% had radium dials and only 5% of those were not "intact." (The EPA admitted the quantities in writing.)

The EPA then razed the warehouse. If you go to that block in North Hollywood, an historic aviation site, all you will see is flat ground. The EPA has said that the cost of their "cleanup" is over $7 million.

Overblown Hazard

In one of the few press reports about the EPA actions at the North Hollywood facility, the Associated Press quoted the EPA's On Scene Coordinator as suggesting that the radium in the instruments could be used to make a so-called "dirty bomb" by terrorists. To professionals in the field, the suggestion was ludicrous. The notion terrorists might buy or steal thousands of instruments, scrape the tiny amounts of radium paint off, and put it in a bomb is idiotic. One professional suggests it would be far more convenient -- and scientifically just about as hazardous -- to just buy talcum powder and put that in a bomb instead. Another said -- tongue in cheek -- that a pallet of instruments (with radium or not) falling from a plane would be a much more dangerous event.

It's interesting that the original estimate to identify, carry off and bury the contaminated instruments, and clean up residue on site, was well under $100,000. Jeff tried and tried to have the EPA and the California State folks carry out that plan -- that they themselves originally proposed -- but the bureaucrats kept changing their stories, changing their interpretation of the guidelines and lying to Jeff. The word on the street -- and I don't know if it's true or not -- is that Jeff wouldn't contribute anything to the Poor Bureaucrats' Beer Fund, so any time he agreed to a cleanup procedure, the DHS increased the amount of Jeff's inventory that would be affected until every single one of the thousands of historic artifacts were hauled off and destroyed.

Our constitution says that the government may not take private property without compensation. Jeff had figured that Preservation Aviation would take about 20 years to sell off the North Hollywood inventory and that in that time, the total value of those instruments, sold one by one, retail would run about $10 million. I don't know if that is true or not, but even if that estimate is off by three standard deviations (and I saw the staggering magnitude of that inventory) it was still about $200,000 to $500,000 a year in sales.

Neither the EPA or DHS paid Preservation Aviation for the inventory that it had purchased in good faith from a man who had bought it in good faith from our government. Nope, the EPA gave Jeff, as a private individual -- not a stockholder of a corporation in good standing -- a bill for $7 million.

The Thick Plottens

Because Preservation Aviation had some of its inventory in a T-hangar at Chino Airport (mostly new in boxes or in military storage cans), and Jeff had zero political clout, the same folks who had persecuted him in North Hollywood came out to Chino. Except this time it was a raid by more than 30 federal employees, EPA bureaucrats and -- believe it or not -- FBI agents. As AVweb reported, they sealed off a row of 10 T-hangars. Jeff had instruments in his hangar in that group of 10. The EPA also dragged the County of San Bernadino in because it owns the airport. That eventually proved to be valuable to the hangar tenants because the County had the resources to tell the EPA that it was being stupidly paranoid. Nevertheless, at first -- after testing showed a mere 20 pico-curies per liter of air of radon in the T-hangar containing the instruments -- the EPA declared that everything in all of those 10 T-hangars was "contaminated." They wanted the six airplanes in those hangars, as well as everything else in them -- motorhomes, cars, motorcycles, tools and the hangar buildings themselves -- destroyed and hauled off to a hazardous-waste disposal area. The EPA had the effrontery to try and use the residential 4 pico-curies per liter guideline for that one hangar and then extrapolate the "contamination" (that was only a product of its fevered imagination) to all 10 hangars.

The County had the clout to compel the EPA to back down and -- to try and keep this recital to a reasonable length -- after a lot of arm waving, the EPA backed down and finally agreed that someone actually determine whether there was actually any contamination in the hangars, rather than just go with the EPA's previously used "we believe" standard for contamination.

The County was required by the EPA to hire a company that could evaluate the radioactive hazard in those hangars and clean it up. The County hired a company approved by the EPA. It came in and found no significant contamination. The EPA went ballistic and had the company fired. A second cleanup company was hired. It went through the T-hangars instrument by instrument at a horrendous cost and it, too, confirmed that the EPA's assertion of "widespread contamination" was absolutely bogus. In Jeff Pearson's inventory it found fewer than 2% of the instruments to have radium dials. It found only seven instruments to be "non-intact." On the floor of Jeff's hangar it found 13 spots of "elevated" radioactivity (by the EPA's standard, not any law). Of those, one -- count 'em, one -- had an origin tied to radium. A piece of tape was applied to that spot and the contaminate stuck to the tape when it was pulled away from the floor, removing that tiny bit of contamination. Five spots were found to be Potassium 40, a by-product of deicing fluid. The testing equipment then broke, so no one knows what the other spots were. To the EPA's chagrin, no radium or excess Alpha or Beta particles were found in any of the hangars.

Several other areas of Potassium 40 contamination were detected in the other hangars. The EPA required no remediation.

Double Standard

Three of the six impounded planes had radium-dial instruments installed. The EPA took no action beyond noting that they had such instruments. Several radium-dialed instruments were found in other hangars than Jeff's. The EPA's response to this was, "Unless the instruments in question belong to Mr. Pearson, they can be returned to their owners."

In the midst of all this, Jeff also contacted the office of his own Congressman, Gary Miller. Inasmuch as Miller's brother-in-law owns and operates Yanks Air Museum, also at Chino Airport, it was hoped that he might be more sensitive to the debacle in progress. Miller passed on Jeff's correspondence to the EPA and FBI, which further stirred up an already buzzing hornet's nest. As with Congressman Calvert, Congressman Miller's staff also declined any further effort in the matter, and Jeff never got to speak directly with the Congressman.

As a result, the EPA unsealed the hangars and freed the six airplanes that were tied up for six months. However, it impounded Preservation Aviation's entire inventory, despite the fact that less than 2% had radium dials and none were showing any radioactivity. Because the EPA "believed the inventory was contaminated," those instruments are in containers that block a taxiway to this day. Jeff Pearson cannot get his inventory back (worth several hundred thousand dollars) -- despite the fact it passed the EPA's tests -- simply because it belongs to him and not some other hangar tenant.

Who Is Next?

Interestingly, as a part of this entire effort, the EPA surveyed much of the hangar area at Chino and found measurable levels of various types of radioactivity. It has acted on none of them. Chino was an Army Air Force base in World War II and the storage site for thousands of surplus military airplanes for some time after the war. Many airplanes and their radium-dial instruments were broken up and buried on the airport and in surrounding fields that are used to grow feed for animals that humans eat. Further, there are two very fine air museums on the Chino Airport. Are they the next targets?

This is a nightmare that will probably be coming to an airport or air museum near you. It is partially a problem with a government that doesn't understand history: Had the EPA or DHS just wandered over to the museum at March Air Force base, they could see a radium-dial instrument on public display from a World War I-era DH-4.

What is needed is some sanity and involvement of the AOPA and EAA. The EAA, despite responding to Jeff's request for help by saying that it does not own any radium-dial instruments, has a museum containing such instruments and displayed some in a large photo in the August 2005 issue of Sport Aviation (EAA's Attic). It has a vested interest in this issue as does every museum, aircraft operator, instrument repair shop, collector and person who works on airplanes in any fashion. There is a crying need for reasonable and scientifically based standards for radium-dial instruments and methods for their repair. If an aircraft or an inventory has a radium-dial instrument, there cannot be a blanket assumption that the entire airplane or the entire inventory is contaminated and must be destroyed. (In one conversation, a DHS bureaucrat said that he felt possession of a radium dial instrument should be illegal. That seems to be just how they are interpreting the guidelines when they apply them to aircraft components, and it is simply an interpretation without legal support.) There is no need to overreact to radium dial instruments; while they are a potential source of radioactive contamination, the degree of threat has to be rationally analyzed standards established that recognize that an intact instrument isn't a time bomb waiting to kill off our population.

Which Standard Applies?

Museums are more like industrial sites than homes. So are warehouses. Industrial radon exposure guidelines should be used for collections of radium dial instruments because people do not spend nearly as much time around inventory in warehouses or museums as they do in their homes. Millions of homes in this country have radon levels that exceed EPA recommendations. The standard mitigation is ventilation. If ventilating an area that has some excess concentration level is acceptable for industry and homes, it should be for warehouses, hangars and museums. If a radium-dial instrument is removed from an antique airplane, there has to be an acceptable level of contamination established, rather than junking the airplane. After all, those airplanes fly very few hours in a year and people are simply not exposed to the small level of contamination that may exist, especially if the instrument had been intact.

The Department of Defense said, in Jeff Pearson's case, that it did not have the budget to deal with an appropriate cleanup. In other "cleanups" it apparently did. Jeff will never be able to pay the millions that were incurred by overzealous, self-righteous bureaucrats, arbitrarily enforcing nonexistent standards so the money will be paid by some branch of the government. Therefore, it's a bookkeeping transaction and bureaucrats at one agency trying to protect their budgets should not be allowed to get in the way of doing the right thing. Here, it seems to me, is that the right thing is for the DoD to buy back radium-dial instruments that are actually a hazard and pay for such cleanups that are actually necessary and not the result of some bureaucrat's opinion that he "believes" there is contamination.

Unfortunately, and all politics aside, our government doesn't exactly have a history of doing the right thing, so we can expect more of the disaster that Jeff Pearson went through, with the loss of irreplaceable historic aviation artifacts simply because they were near or in a building that had radium-dial instruments. It's already happening to the gentleman in Salisbury, Md. How would you like it if an EPA bureaucrat met you at your hangar and informed you that because the Stearman next door has radium-dial instruments, your airplane is going to be scrapped and hauled to a hazardous-waste disposal site and that you won't be paid for your property -- on the contrary, you'll have to pay for the disposal?

The bureaucrats have already come for some of us. Unless we stand up against them, they will keep picking us off.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.