Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens said they will never forget Thursday, Sept. 27, a clear autumn day. For after a decadelong fight, they finally persuaded Congress to formally apologize to Utah cancer victims of nuclear-test fallout.
"This is a day of justice, a day of freedom for all those who have been ignored for so many years," Hatch, the Senate sponsor, said in a press conference celebrating the bill's final passage.Owens - the House sponsor - added, "It seems so appropriate that as we have watched in wonder over the past 15 months the demise of the Cold War, that now we come and compensate the American victims of the Cold War.
"Congress doesn't apologize in the name of the United States very often. This is a singular day."
Much of the push resulted from reports in the late 1970s by Deseret News Washington correspondent Gordon Eliot White, who unearthed the first evidence of higher cancer rates in areas downwind of nuclear tests. He won some of the most prestigious awards in journalism for it.
The bill now goes to President Bush for his signature.
Hatch and Owens said the administration is not thrilled with the bill's$100 million payment to victims and the precedent it may set for other groups - such as neighbors of the Hanford, Wash., nuclear plant.
But they said the administration has indicated Bush will not veto it. "Frankly, the Justice Department and White House came to the conclusion this is a reasonable solution," Hatch said.
Owens and Hatch estimate that the bill may afford compensation for 500 residents who lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site and for 200 uranium miners. The miners lived in Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.
The bill admits the government was wrong not to have better protected or warned people who lived downwind of atomic tests and the miners who were unwittingly exposed to even heavier radiation while digging uranium.
Downwinders or their survivors who can prove they lived in nuclear-test fallout areas and developed cancer may apply to the Justice Department for a $50,000 payment.
Miners who dug uranium for defense projects in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming and developed cancer - many of whom are low-income Navajo Indians - are eligible for $100,000.
Owens' work on the House floor to shepherd final adoption of Senate amendments to the bill was so important that he broke an appointment with Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan.
"And you don't blow off the crown prince. But let the record show that helping the downwinders was so important that I did put off the crown prince of Jordan," he said.
Owens has been involved in the plight of downwinders since the beginning - seeing the tests, later representing victims in court, then pushing the bill for them in Congress.
"I was a high school student in this (fallout) area and watched those early morning blasts, and I know how good and helpful and patriotic these citizens felt" to be part of the national defense effort, he said.
Owens added, "The government knew these people were being poisoned by fallout, and the evidence is clear . . . that increased incidence of cancer fell to downwind victims."
Because tests were performed only when the wind blew toward Utah, Owens said, "in very real fact, the federal government made a decision to bomb the people to whom this bill makes an apology today."
Owens as a lawyer represented many downwinders in court - and won early decisions. But appeals courts later ruled the government was immune by law to such suits.
"The courts in turning it down said there is justice needed and deserved here, but it is for the Congress to address." He said he was honored to have pushed that in Congress.
Congress is still not completely finished with the issue because while the bill passed Thursday authorizes spending up to $100 million to compensate downwinders and uranium miners, Congress has not yet actually appropriated that money.
Hatch and Owens said that will likely come next year. Meanwhile, they said they hope the Justice Department will begin processing claims for when the money is available.
Hatch predicted the first payment to victims will occur within a year.