For 30 years, Rula Orton has missed her daughter, Peggy, nearly every day - the red-haired, fair-complexioned girl who died of leukemia at age 14 in 1960.
On Monday, justice came to Rula Orton. President Bush signed a fallout compensation bill apologizing for the deaths and illness of people like Peggy, who died of cancer blamed on open-air nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.In 1983, U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins ruled that Peggy Orton and others died because of negligence by the government in conducting the tests at the NTS, which is near Las Vegas. The tests were carried out in the 1950s and early '60s.
With Jenkins' ruling, the victims' kin seemed to win a tremendous court victory. But their claims later were dismissed by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court - not because the government evidence was stronger that the tests didn't cause cancer, but because the government is immune from suit when engaged in "national security" efforts.
The bill Bush signed awards $50,000 each to cancer victims, or their heirs, who lived downwind of the tests. It also awards $100,000 for uranium miners who developed cancer after the government failed to warn them of risks.
While the bill authorizes payments to downwinders and uranium miners, no money has been appropriated. However, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, expects no problems with the actual appropriation, and payments should start in about 18 months.
"I'm glad they're owning up to it," Rula Orton, a Parowan resident who is now 78, told the Deseret News Monday. "I feel very good about that."
The Ortons grew vegetables in their garden and often got raw milk from a dairy. The girl drank milk at every meal and sometimes between meals.
Cancer researchers say milk was a prime route for fallout exposure. Cows would graze on contaminated grass, concentrating the radiation, and radioactive Iodine 131 would bepassed along to consumers in milk.
"I think quite a lot about it," Rula Orton said of her daughter's death. "It's on my mind a lot . . . I just can't express myself. It's a sad affair."
She remembered watching nuclear explosions across the desert. "We'd watch the flashes in the morning when they were set off," she said.
When Peggy was in the eighth grade, "she went over to our neighbor's and she hit a foot on a cement step, and broke a bone in the foot."
The doctor who gave Peggy a cast was bothered by something else entirely: her pallor. "She was awful pale and awful tired, most of the time," Rula Orton said.
He sent the girl to Salt Lake City for tests, which diagnosed leukemia. She died soon afterward.
"She was a beautiful girl," Orton said, her voice breaking. "You never forget."
U. study linked cancer, fallout
Dr. Joseph L. Lyon, the University of Utah researcher whose studies in the 1970s demonstrated a cancer-fallout link - and whose recent studies underscore that link - says it's about time for compensation.
"In fact, I think it's overdue," he said. The research "suggested that the government had a role in increased leukemia rates."
The latest study, in which dosages were reconstructed for individual victims, showed leukemia "was about seven times higher than one might expect."
It hit mostly people under 20, and most victims died by 1963.
`Harry' dumped on St. George
"The heaviest exposure in Washington County occurred on May 19, 1953, from Shot Harry. About 80 percent of the exposure occurred on that day and the week after that shot," Lyon said.
"Harry" dumped high levels of radiation on unsuspecting St. George residents, who were not even warned to go indoors until an hour after fallout began sifting down, according to testimony before Jenkins.
Former fallout monitor Frank A. Butrico said at the trial that his radiation meter's needle went off the scale after fallout hit that morning. The highest reading on the instrument was 300 milliroentgens per hour.
Just an hour after the warning finally came, he said, residents were told they could go outside again.
People were never warned
Butrico said he took as many showers as he could that day and followed the advice of an Atomic Energy Commission official in buying new clothes. But the people of St. George were not told to do this, he said.
"If they had advised people to remain indoors; if they essentially had them shower off thoroughly - everybody - and probably either wash their clothes or dispose of their clothing, they probably would have prevented most of the radiation exposure," Lyon said Monday.
In addition, milk products could have been converted to powdered milk or cheese, taking some days, because radioactive iodine has a short half-life.
Justice Dept. wanted a veto
Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, the bill's sponsors, said Bush was under pressure to veto it by the Justice Department and others who worried about its $100 million price tag and the precedent it may set for other groups.
"A lot of people were really upset about it," Hatch said. He added that the fact Bush did sign it "is recognition that the bill really is a good bill. It really does resolve these problems in a way that's fair to government and fair to the people as well."
Owens added, "I'm pleased he took the positive step to sign the bill. It's positive for him to be on the side of people who suffered so long. They are victims of the Cold War, and they will now be compensated for their long suffering."
Efforts to seek compensation for downwinders began in the '70s after Deseret News Washington correspondent Gordon Eliot White unearthed the first evidence of higher cancer rates downwind of nuclear testing.