Toxic Utah: A land littered with poisons

Utah has paid high price for U.S. military might

Published: Monday, Feb. 12 2001 12:00 a.m. MST

Nolan Hill holds a picture of his parents, Gilbert Dean and Wantia Hill, at his home Dec. 1. Gilbert Hill worked at Dugway and died after accidental exposure to radiation.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

The Cold War was hot in Utah, though few realized it.

The government chose the remote, low-population state for secretive weapons tests that bombarded it with nerve gas, germ weaponry and radioactive fallout.

Oleta Nelson of Cedar City was among the thousands of unwitting civilian casualties in Utah.

Fallout from atomic bomb tests in Nevada — conducted by design of federal officials only when the wind was blowing toward Utah — killed her after 12 years of agony from brain cancer. The fallout hit not only southern Utah, but also the heavily populated Wasatch Front — a fact few suspect.

Another casualty was Ray Peck's family in Skull Valley. They were likely hit with low doses of the nerve gas from a Dugway Proving Ground test that accidentally killed 6,000 sheep near their home in 1968. The Pecks lived but haven't been the same since.

On the other hand, Rolland Bivens was a voluntary human guinea pig intentionally infected by germ weaponry in Utah's desert with other Seventh-day Adventists who had avoided combat duty as conscientious objectors. The same germ clouds that sickened him floated toward major highways and some small cities.

Much of the waste — and suffering — from Cold War tests and military work remains in Utah. New secretive military testing raises even more concerns.

And wastes from more conventional arms testing and training also litter vast areas of the state.

That's not a new story. It is one that has been closely watched and reported by the Deseret News for 25 years, with some cleanup and compensation for victims achieved. But an update now shows much remains undone.


Energy Department records show the Nevada Test Site conducted 141 tests of atomic bombs that likely spread radiation toward Utah — just a portion of the 930 tests (both above and below ground) conducted there through 1992.

The bomb tests are the only class of Cold War weapons testing that the government has acknowledged likely killed or sickened civilians downwind. But it acknowledges that fact for only a small portion of people who think they are victims.

For example, studies show significant fallout from tests not only hit southern Utah, but also heavily populated Salt Lake County — and even every county in America. Congress never made these areas eligible for compensation, in part, because it simply would be too expensive.

As of Nov. 15, Justice Department figures show 7,138 "downwinders," uranium workers and Nevada Test Site workers with claims settled — but 3,574 (30 percent) were rejected.

The case of Oleta Nelson demonstrates how many victims had to wait for the government to acknowledge fault and offer compensation — and why many may never receive it.

Isaac Nelson, her husband, remembers that neighbors called them outside on May 19, 1953, to watch a fallout cloud. It was from an atomic bomb test later nicknamed "Dirty Harry" because of its heavy fallout. They didn't worry because the government falsely told residents it was safe.

Later that night, Oleta Nelson suffered a headache that would pound for six months. A few weeks later, she would scream when much of her hair simply slipped off her scalp. She would soon develop brain cancer and die 12 years later.

Isaac Nelson joined early lawsuits seeking to make the government acknowledge that fallout caused such deaths and to pay for it. But judges ruled the government was immune from suits for actions it made for national defense.

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