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Defects, distrust left in wake of military testing

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 4:40 a.m. MDT

Of all the poisonous residue the federal government left throughout Utah because of its secret military tests, perhaps the most toxic is distrust of the government.
In the early 1950s, Gilbert Dean Hill worked for a contractor, painting bunker doorways, water barrels and other objects at Dugway Proving Ground, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
Hill would stay at Dugway from Monday through Friday and go home for the weekend. One day around 1952, when he was returning to the barracks after work, a supervisor asked, "Why were you guys out in the field today? Don't you know you weren't supposed to be out there?"
No, said Hill, "Nobody told us."
The supervisor said that some testing was going on. Then he added, "but it's OK, because it's nothing that could hurt you."
What the World War II veteran did not know in 1952 — what almost nobody in Utah knew until a few years ago — is that in addition to extensive open-air nerve gas, bacteriological warfare and simulant experiments, Dugway carried out at least 74 secret tests to scatter radioactive material in the atmosphere. Many of the tests were in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Total radiation released was 153,000 curies, or 10,000 times the level released by the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island.
All the Hill family knew is that birth defects showed up in a child born after the incident (since deceased), and that Gilbert Hill died of an agonizing illness that destroyed nerves in his lungs.
"When we moved him in here, his right nerve was totally dead and his left nerve was partially, which meant that he could not lean back or lie down in his bed or he would suffocate," said his son, Nolan Hill of Kearns.
For the past 10 or 11 years of Gilbert Hill's life, he never slept in bed. "He would either sit in a chair and lean on a table, or he would kneel down by an ottoman chair in his room and lean on it."
When Gilbert Hill died in 1997, the obituary in the Deseret News began, "Returned to his loving Father's arms after years of physical suffering caused by exposure to the secret Dugway radiation test in 1952."
During a trial seeking compensation for the cancer deaths of southern Utah residents, former Atomic Energy Commission fallout monitor Frank Butrico testified he was stationed in St. George on May 19, 1953, for a nuclear test that has come to be called "Dirty Harry."
Fallout began hitting St. George at 8:30 a.m. Then, between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m., Butrico's instrument was off the dial, indicating exposure greater than 300 milliroentgens per hour.
Butrico telephoned a radiation official at the Nevada Test Site, who told him to wait. Butrico called again at 9:45 a.m., but the official had no concrete plan other than to wash cars and get people indoors.
Butrico met with the mayor of St. George, who arranged for a Cedar City radio station to announce that people should go indoors. The announcement came about 10:15 a.m.
"No other effort was made to reach towns to the east," wrote U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins. Butrico estimated a level of 320 milliroentgens per hour could have hit St. George for 20 minutes.
In 1984, Jenkins ruled that fallout caused human deaths and the federal government was negligent in failing to warn residents. However, on appeal the government won a reversal on national security grounds.
Later, Congress ordered some relief. It has paid compensation for thousands killed by fallout from the above-ground tests of the 1950s and 1960s, or who were injured by unsafe uranium mining. But it has rejected many claims.
For decades, the government denied responsibility for a massive sheep kill in the spring of 1953, when herds from southern Utah grazed in winter pastures 60 miles from the Nevada Test Site.
That was the year of the dirtiest nuclear explosions ever set off in the open air at the site: tests Annie, 16 kilotons; Nancy, 24 kilotons; Badger, 23 kilotons; Simon, 43 kilotons; Harry, 32 kilotons.
Fallout rained down on sheep and actually burned holes in their fleece; they grazed contaminated grass.
"You'd think they'd be all right, and the next day there'd be 30 or 40 of them dead," rancher Kern Bullock, Cedar City, recalled years later.
In the last two weeks of May 1953, of 11,000 sheep and lambs in the region, 4,300 died or were born dead.
Government veterinarians investigated, finding the sheep had high levels of radiation in organs, particularly their thyroids, and that bones, livers and lungs also registered high readings.
One federal vet wrote that he believed "the Atomic Energy Commission has contributed to great losses." Another specialist wrote that the sheep's facial sores made him suspect they had come into contact with "material on the bushes, grass and etc. that would cause these lesions."
A June 9, 1953, radiation measurement in sheep thyroid glands, an expert wrote, exceeded "by a factor of 250 to 1,000 times the maximum permissible concentration of radioactive iodine for humans."
But the AEC claimed the sheep died because of poor vegetation.
The ranchers filed suit for compensation in 1955, but during the trial they were unable to prove the fallout killed their sheep. In his 1956 decision, Judge A. Sherman Christensen wrote, "Of the three professional men who originally suggested radiation damage, two, upon further consideration, questioned their original diagnosis. None of them claimed to be particularly qualified in the field of radiation.
"On the other hand, some of the best informed experts in the country expressed considered and convinced judgment that radiation damage could not possibly have been a cause or a contributing cause."
In 1982, Christensen reopened the case, saying government attorneys had committed fraud on his court in the original suit. However, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overruled him in 1985, saying the government did not commit fraud or withhold information. The Supreme Court refused to review the matter.
The ranchers never were compensated.
"The government is too far in debt to pay for a bunch of sheep," said Vera Bullock, Cedar City, the widow of Kern Bullock, summarizing what she believes is the federal position.
There have been recent incidents as well.
In 1994, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs released a report about the possible chemical exposure to Earl Davenport, a Tooele resident who worked at Dugway.
Davenport declined to be interviewed, but the report recounts what happened to him.
"He became ill in 1984 after being exposed to a chemical simulant called DMMP (dimethyl methylphosphate). He had been spraying the chemical into the path of a laser beam when a sudden change in wind blew the chemical all over his face and hair before he was able to put on a protective mask," the report says.
Although Davenport was wheezing and coughing the next day and his symptoms lasted for weeks, Dugway's clinic "merely gave him cough medicine and antibiotics. . . .
"However, by 1988, officials at Dugway had re-evaluated the simulant's danger and were becoming concerned that DMMP could cause cancer and kidney damage."


E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com

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