Hurry up and wait
Decades after people started dying from atomic testing fallout from Nevada, the federal government is still trying to define the problem—and the victims
There’s something peculiar about the U.S. Department of Labor’s distribution of compensation checks to the surviving family members of nuclear weapons workers.
Those checks are going to the kin of workers but not to the surviving workers themselves.
On Jan. 11, the Labor Department announced that it is starting to send out checks to family members of deceased workers, but surviving workers themselves will have to wait at least until May for payments to start. That’s because it’s difficult to figure out how much to pay workers for lost wages and disabilities. The surviving spouses or children, on the other hand, will be getting lump-sum payments.
It’s the kind of bureaucratic snarl that drives victims of Nevada atomic testing crazy. In the case of downwinders—those folks who developed cancer, leukemia and other maladies after nuclear fallout drifted over their communities—the compensation and apology they feel they are due is preceded by endless delays. Little wonder many of them believe the feds are simply trying to drag everything out until victims die off.
Consider, for instance, the simple matter of public hearings for a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a private, non-profit research group that is supposed to report on whether to widen federal compensation to “additional illnesses, geographic areas, or classes of individual.” Its report to a federal agency is due March 31, and a final report must be before Congress by June 30. NAS originally planned to hold only a single public hearing for the entire West. It changed that decision after pressure from a member of Congress but only to provide for one hearing in each of three states—Utah, Idaho and Arizona. No hearing was scheduled for Nevada.
The lack of hearings created a political firestorm in Idaho, and after heavy pressure from the Idaho congressional delegation, NAS agreed on Sept. 14 to hold a second Idaho hearing.
In Arizona, residents found a novel solution—they convened their own hearings, presided over by state officials. The next such hearing will be at the Heidenreich Senior Center in Kingman on Jan. 27.
Preston Truman, a Utah downwind activist, says Nevadans should be outraged that they are being overlooked.
“Why hasn’t the Nevada [congressional] delegation demanded the same attention from the NAS panel for hearings from those areas of Nevada as the politicians in Utah and Idaho and Arizona have?”
The battle over hearings ate up months. If it takes all this effort just to get hearings scheduled, imagine the difficulties faced by victims in actually getting acknowledged and added to the regions recognized as high incidence areas.
Currently, federal law provides for compensation of people living in just 21 counties in the West—in Utah (Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne), Nevada (Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Nye, White Pine and a portion of Clark County), and Arizona (Apache, Coconino, Gila, Navajo, Yavapai and that part of Arizona north of the Grand Canyon).
That list of was produced 15 years ago, when the science was not as up to date as it is now. It was created on the premise that migration of fallout was basically from west to east.
But federal officials were jolted in 1997 when a 14-year study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) leaked out. It indicated that the migration of fallout was far wider than had previously been believed, reaching into New England and Canada and directly north of the Nevada Test Site, with some of the hardest-hit counties being in Idaho. The group of victims living in these areas, who might be called northwinders, have very limited coverage under the 1990 compensation act, which restricted compensation to the 21 counties in three states.
The NCI report, which wasn’t supposed to be released to the public, provoked another study by Congress—this one to scrutinize the NCI report. That study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council concluded, among other things, “The NCI report presents a comprehensive rationale for assuming that significant thyroid doses were experienced by many in the U.S. population, particularly for the youngest birth cohorts, as a result of the fallout of I[odine]-131 from the nuclear weapons testing program.” (A map showing the reach of fallout is posted at www.downwinders.org/nci.html.)
But that second report hasn’t produced action, either, other than another study by the NAS, leading to rampant suspicions that Congress believes compensation money can be saved by constantly pushing resolution back while downwinders die.
It is certainly true that holding down the number of hearings for the study presents the kind of publicity federal officials loathe—such as the fellow at the Nov. 6 hearing in Boise. Gary Miller, who lives in an area with a high rate of cancers, said sadly, “I apologize I sold milk to all the neighbors.” Milk is one of the most common ways fallout got into the food chain, and the telegenic scene of a troubled man apologizing for selling milk is just the kind of publicity many federal officials prefer to avoid.
Just finding the victims is not easy. While downwinders once got a lot of news coverage, they’re now an old story, rather like the notices stuck up around the West inviting people with radiation-related diseases to call for help. They have been hanging on walls of public agencies and private businesses for so long that they now blend into the background. The Idaho northwinders are at least getting publicity in that state’s media, where it remains a hot issue.
In much of the West, and particularly in Nevada and Arizona, there is a special problem—terrific population growth and rapid population turnover. Idaho has a relatively stable population compared to other areas. People now living in, say, Indiana or the Carolinas may not relate their current illnesses to their long-ago residence in Nevada.
Downwinders in the original 21 counties are supportive of others who seek to be added to the list of counties."We’ve had JUST US instead of JUSTICE for too long already—JUST US being those of us from the 21 counties now covered!" as Truman writes in an e-mail message.