Questions Remain over Discovered Depleted Uranium at an abandoned Gulfport
By Keith Burton – GulfCoastNews.com filed 7/31/05
Several cases of depleted uranium discovered two weeks ago by accident at an old steel fabrication plant in Gulfport and at a warehouse owned by the same company on 34th street are the focus of an investigation by the Mississippi Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
As mainstream media reports on the discovery have been few, GCN is conducting a follow-up on this intriguing story.
“The Mississippi Department of Health has taken possession of all radioactive sources from this location. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be conducting an investigation along with the Mississippi Department of Health,” said Jim Craig, Director of the Office of Health Protection for the Mississippi Department of Health.
Craig’s comments were relayed to GCN via the agency’s spokeswoman Kelly Shannon Friday, July 30. GCN had sought a direct interview with the State Health Department’s personnel, but did not receive that response. Craig’s comments were delivered to GCN via email, and did not include responses to specific questions.The deleted uranium was found by investigator Earl Ethridge of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by accident while looking into a small oil spill at the abandoned Irby Steel plant. The plant was previously owned by Struthers Industries in Gulfport and is located at the corner of Three Rivers Road and Creosote Road. Thousand of vehicles go by the plant every day as it is near one of the busiest retail areas on the coast. It is close to Sam’s Club, several auto dealers and restaurants. The company that owned plant has been in bankruptcy and a new owner has acquired the property.
Ethridge tells GCN that he spotted a container, marked “Radioactive material” while walking through the Creosote Road site. He says the container was a large empty lead box on wheels that he called a transport box. He said transport boxes are used to move depleted uranium around as it is very heavy. Ethridge tells GCN that he then retrieved a radiation detector from his truck and further inspected the area. He found a small room behind a door that triggered a response from his radiation detector. He said the door was subsequently opened and inside the room were another transport box and several smaller boxes holding the depleted uranium. He said he did not open the boxes.
It is interesting to note that somehow, no one seemed to have noticed the “radioactive” box in previous visits to the site.
Shortly after the boxes were discovered, the Department of Health was contacted and that agency contracted with a Baton Rouge firm, which reportedly on July 21, removed the depleted uranium. The boxes are extremely heavy. Depleted uranium is about 1.7 times heavier than lead.
Depleted uranium is the by-product of producing uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants. The material remains mildly radioactive however, and is considered hazardous.
The state health department has jurisdiction over radioactive materials and that is why they were called in. Apparently, the previous owners of the property used the depleted uranium as part of inspecting welds on certain materials.
It appears that somehow, the Department of Health had lost track of the status of the depleted uranium at the Irby Steel site as the property had not been in use for some time. The agency says it operates an inspection and licensing program that is supposed to insure the safe use of the sources of radiation and protect the public’s health.
“MDH licensed this facility – Irby Steel – for industrial radiography,” said the email to GCN from the health department. “The company has been licensed to conduct industrial radiography for more than 20 years.”
As to why the depleted uranium had remained at the plant while it was closed, and when had the last inspection occurred, GCN was not able to determine from the health department’s email. We were also not told the total amount, weight and value of the depleted uranium at the plant, even though GCN did ask in a previous email to the agency. Of course we would have rather had a direct interview, but that didn’t happen.
“The devices containing the depleted uranium were found secured under lock and key, and no exposures have been reported,” was the response from the email from the health department.
However Ethridge with the DEQ told GCN that one of the transport boxes that once contained some depleted uranium was open and empty. Where did the depleted uranium in that box go? Has there been a full accounting of the quantity of depleted uranium that was supposed to be at the site?
And while there has not been any “exposures” reported, has the health department found those that dealt with the depleted uranium while it was in use?
The email from the Mississippi Department of Health does explain why the deplete uranium was on the site:
“Depleted uranium is used for shielding. In a locked up storage area, Irby Steel had two radiography devices, which contained depleted uranium. The sources were inside industrial radiography devices and were secured at the time they were found. Sources of this type are commonly used in industrial radiography devices.”
The public’s main awareness of depleted uranium is from its use as shells for the anti-tank guns in the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane. While depleted uranium is only mildly radioactive, it does not mean it is safe. There are numerous health questions regarding depleted uranium especially when it fragments and burns.
It is also a pyrophoric metal, which means that, like magnesium, it will burn in air, and can produce a "smoke" of very fine aerosol particles of uranium oxides that are small enough (less than 10 microns in diameter) to be inhaled and to become lodged deep in the lungs where they can remain for decades. There is no evidence that the deplete uranium at the plant was burned or ground into a powder. But the health department has not yet explained how much depleted uranium was supposed to be at the site and what became of the material that was once in the empty lead-lined transport case.
A news report in the Sun Herald said that the investigation by the EPA and health department are focusing on one individual, however the newspaper did not credit the source of that information or the name of the individual, only that it came from “authorities.”
And while the depleted uranium has been removed by the state, who is actually responsible? And will the state seek to recover the disposal costs?
There is a raging controversy worldwide over the use of depleted uranium. Government officials with the military say it is safe and not a danger to soldiers in the material’s use as shells, but there are growing questions. A search on the Internet finds numerous stories from credible sources on the potential dangers of depleted uranium to health.
DEQ’s Ethridge says the Irby Steel plant site is currently owned by developer Steve Harrington of H & H Enterprises of Gulfport, the Hancock Bank as a result of the bankruptcy, and Harrison County Schools, since part of the land is on 16th Section land that the school system owns.
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