This is the story of the Utahns who were left out of the recent fallout compensation bill.
They are hard-working ranch families whose livelihoods were destroyed by government negligence. Worse, the government lied to them when they tried to find justice in the federal court back in the 1950s.In those days, at the height of the Cold War, they lost livestock worth about $200,000 - a figure that would be many times higher in today's dollars.
Because they lost so many animals to the effects of fallout, families went into debt from which some could not recover.
The judge who heard their original suit and ruled in favor of the government in 1956 listened again to arguments in the 1980s and ruled that the government had committed fraud on the court. But the victims still were unable to get their case reopened.
When the fallout compensation bill was working its way through Congress this fall, the House Judiciary Committee deleted a portion intended to reimburse the ranchers. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, the bill's sponsor, said this happened simply because Congress didn't want to deal with the issue of sheep deaths.
In the spring of 1953, Utah ranchers were moving their sheep from winter grazing land in Nevada to Cedar City, where the ranchers lived. In the high country of Iron County, lambs would be born and sheep would be sheared. The herds would graze on the mountainous summer range.
But then southern Utah sheep ranching took a sudden, bizarre downturn. On the 11 grazing operations that leased public land within 60 miles of the Nevada Test Site, sheep began dying by the hundreds.
What turned out to be the dirtiest nuclear explosions ever detonated in the United States were being exploded at the Nevada Test Site. Many of the huge fireballs were detonated close to the ground. These bombs, larger than 13 kilotons, were exploded from towers only 300 feet above ground:
- Annie, March 17, 1953, 16 kilotons.
- Nancy, March 24, 24 kilotons.
- Badger, April 18, 23 kilotons.
- Simon, April 25, 43 kilotons.
- Harry, May 19, 32 kilotons.
Kern and Mac Bullock were among the ranchers whose sheep were in the area. They were trailing 2,000 animals back from the winter range near the test site, moving at six miles a day. When they were two weeks from home, they actually saw the flash from a nuclear explosion.
That morning Atomic Energy Commission officials in a Jeep warned them they were in a "hell of a hot spot."
But the sheep couldn't move any faster. They just grazed along, heading back to Utah - six miles a day. By the time they were back in Cedar City, they "started dying like flies," Kern Bullock said years later. They had lesions in their mouths and backs, apparently burns from particles. Stunted lambs were dying at birth.
Sheep that seemed normal and were eating well would suddenly drop dead. Bullock said, "You'd think they'd be all right, and the next day there'd be 30 or 40 of them dead. We'd just haul them off, dead."
Altogether, in the last two weeks in May 1953, of about 11,000 sheep and lambs in the region, 4,300 died or were born dead. The losses were severe for ranching families.
Government veterinarians discovered that the sheep had high levels of radiation in their organs, particularly their thyroid glands. Grass was contaminated with radioactive Iodine 131, and it became concentrated in the thyroids. Bones, livers, lungs all had high readings.
Even when the scientists got there days after the animals' exposure, the sheep from three different herds were still so hot they had external beta counts on their backs ranging from 1.7 millirads per hour to 50 millirads per hour.
One of the experts who examined the sheep was Dr. R.E. Thompsett of the Veterinary Hospital at Los Alamos, N.M., who had an Atomic Energy Commission contract. He wrote:
"Again with the sheep losses I am of the opinion that the Atomic Energy Commission has contributed to great losses. I would again like to state that my report is only a matter of individual opinion.
"First, there is no doubt as to the origin of the lesions on the sheep. The lesions are absolutely typical of the Trinity lesions . . ." Trinity was the first atomic test in 1945, which also had injured some livestock.
Maj. R.J. Veenstra of the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, San Francisco, said in 1953 that the facial sores on the sheep resulted from sheep nibbling grass short, which "leads one to suspect the lips and fore face could easily come in contact with material on the bushes, grass and etc. that would cause these lesions."
Dr. Monroe A. Holmes, a veterinarian with the U.S. Public Health Service assigned to the Utah Department of Health, said the animals had sores, scaly areas and lost wool. "Body lesions were not noticed until shearing time, when the shearers mentioned that the wool seemed to pull out."
A ewe was killed, and Veenstra divided tissue samples with Dr. Arthur Wolff, at the time a veterinarian with the Public Health Service in Cincinnati. Bone samples were examined for radiation. Radiation in the bone marrow was said by Dr. Wolff to be "approximately 50 percent greater than the maximum permissible concentration of strontium 89-90 for humans," Holmes wrote.
"The concentrations of radiation in these thyroid glands as of June 9, 1953, exceeds by a factor of 250 to 1,000 the maximum permissible concentration of radioactive iodine for humans."
In 1955, the ranchers filed for fallout damages; their lawyer was a young Salt Lake attorney, Dan S. Bushnell. The government contended the deaths were caused by poor range conditions.
Bushnell submitted written interrogatories before the trial. One question was whether anyone concluded that fallout was a possible cause of injury to the sheep.
The government's written reply was, "We do not know of anyone connected with the Atomic Energy Commission's investigation of the alleged sheep losses who now disagrees with the report issued by the Atomic Energy Commission."
Question 31: "Were any sheep examined considered to be `hot' or evidencing abnormal radioactivity?"
Answer 31 was a lie: "No."
If sheep were proven to be harmed, it would be a logical assumption that fallout was injuring people, too. Cows grazed pastures in the area, too, and radioactive iodine could be passed along in their milk. And people could inhale fallout particles as easily as sheep could.
Thompsett was one of the veterinarians whose testimony could have been most important to the ranchers. At the trial, held in Salt Lake City in 1956, the government claimed that poor range conditions killed the sheep. And Thompsett wasn't there.
On Sept. 13, 1956, Judge A. Sherman Christensen asked whether the veterinarian would testify. Bushnell said he did not call him to the witness stand.
Bushnell and Justice Department lawyer John J. Finn had gone to New Mexico to take Thompsett's deposition on March 14, 1956. The ranchers' lawyer wanted Thompsett to talk about his original report, which blamed fallout for the sheep deaths.
"We talked to him for a few minutes," Bushnell told the court. "After talking to him - this was a risk I took on my own - I concluded that he had changed his mind completely and was hostile . . .
"They (government employees) then proceeded to introduce a second report (by Thompsett), and we had an argument about whose witness he was; whether they could cross-examine or I could cross-examine."
The second report was a letter from Thompsett dated May 23, 1955. It said he had changed his opinion.
Thompsett told Bushnell, "Subsequent findings have proof, in my mind, that there was not enough radioactivity, from what others have told me, to have caused the damage that is outlined in the exhibit (his later letter) in your hand."
Bushnell asked who Thompsett talked with before preparing that report.
"I can't recall exactly whom, with whom I talked. I talked with a good many people," said Thompsett.
About 10 years ago, the ranchers tried to reopen their suit, in light of more recent information about the dangers of fallout.
Through court action, they obtained confidential files that had been unavailable until then.
These documents show that the government actually wrote a "model letter" for Thompsett, in which he was supposed to repudiate his earlier position.
On May 9, 1955, Lt. Col. Bernard F. Trum of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, University of Tennessee, AEC Project, Oak Ridge, Tenn., wrote this cover note to Thompsett:
"Enclosed find model letter and documents. The letters are for your information only so you can see what is represented.
"The letter is addressed to Woodruff. If you'd rather submit it to King you change it and send Woodruff and me a copy. Send one to Pearson too if you want to because he's interested. If the letter is not exactly to your liking or not in your style, you make the changes as you see fit. I believe this fits the facts as we know them today."
Seth R. Woodruff was field manager of the AEC's Las Vegas Field Office. Dr. Paul B. Pearson was chief of the AEC's Biology Branch.
According to Christensen's ruling, Trum wrote a letter on May 12, 1955, to Llewellyn O. Thomas, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case in Salt Lake City. The letter is more fully quoted in documents submitted by plaintiffs. They say Trum wrote, "Lt. Col. Robert J. Veenstra and Dr. R.E. Thompsett were the only veterinarians to give tentative diagnoses of radiation injury of sheep.
"Except for empirical observations there was very little generally known of the radiation syndrome in sheep at that time.
"Subsequently, as a result of experimentation and radiobiological assays, sufficient knowledge has become available to allow them to re-evaluate the situation.
"They will definitely state that they do not have evidence that radiation injury was either the cause or contributed to the death of the sheep. They will disqualify themselves and leave to others the problem of demonstrating that ionizing radiation did not cause demonstrable injury to the sheep."
Years after the sheep deaths, the Deseret News contacted Wolff. He said Veenstra was "crucified" when he testified for the plaintiffs.
Christensen issued his decision on Oct. 26, 1956, blasting the AEC for its carelessness during the atomic tests. "There were no advance warnings given or other precautions taken to safeguard the herders or their sheep," he wrote. "There was no suggestion in the evidence of any unexpected developments."
But he also held that the ranchers could not prove that fallout killed the sheep.
"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 August 1982, Christensen reconsidered the case and concluded that the government had perpetuated fraud on the court in the original trial by, among other things, "improper but successful attempts to pressure witnesses not to testify as to their real opinions, or to unduly discount their qualifications."
Christensen's ruling was later overturned.
Still, experts who examined the data many years after the sheep deaths agreed that fallout really was to blame.
In 1979, Harold A. Knapp, a former AEC researcher, prepared a report for Congress on the sheep deaths. He used records of the day about radiation levels, adjusted for the half-life of the material, and computed the amount of fallout that sheep must have ingested.
"The simplest explanation of the primary cause of death in the lambing ewes is irradiation of the ewes' gastrointestinal tract," he wrote. Internally, they got "thousands of rads" of radiation.
Donald S. Fredrickson, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Peter F. Libassi, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, testified in congressional fallout hearings on April 19, 1979, in Salt Lake City.
"Some of the surviving sheep were examined; autopsies were made," he told the congressional committees. There was no question "that the dose levels were almost 1,000 times the permissible count for human beings in the thyroid . . ."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked, "Dr. Fredrickson, from the examination of the documents, from your own review of the scientific evidence in the case, was it possible to reach the conclusion that radiation did not cause or contribute in any way to the sheep's death?"
Fredrickson replied, "I think, Sen. Kennedy, on the basis of the documents that I have had the opportunity to see, it would have been extremely difficult, probably impossible, to conclude that radiation did not at least contribute to the cause of death of the sheep."
Yet today, those ranching families - Utahns who suffered massive financial blows and were the victims of governmental negligence and lies - remain uncompensated.