Although Congress finally agreed this autumn to compensate Utah cancer victims exposed to open-air nuclear fallout in the 1950s and early 1960s, the sheep ranchers who lost their flocks to intense radiation from the same tests are still waiting to be recognized.

In the aftermath of five nuclear tests over a two-month period, the sheep ranchers saw their animals start to die of obvious radiation poisoning. The losses were heavy and some families were driven to the edge of bankruptcy. These were small ranchers. Some never fully recovered financially.It ought to have been easy for the federal government to make up for the damage at the time. Losses totaled more than $200,000, a relatively much larger sum in the early 1950s than today, but still a minor cost for government, even back in those days.

Yet this is not just a matter of federal recalcitrance in paying for damages it caused. The issue involved deceit, cover-ups, lies and an absolute refusal to admit responsibility in the face of overwhelming evidence.

The feeling by federal officials at the time apparently was that to admit any danger from the open-air atomic testing would jeopardize continuation of the tests and thus affect national security. So the decision was made to jeopardize the downwind citizens and their livestock instead.

When the sheep ranchers filed a lawsuit in 1956, federal officials said there was no evidence of radiation-caused deaths and the judge ruled in favor of the government. More than 25 years later, the same judge listened again to arguments and declared that the government had committed fraud upon the court in that first case - lied and hid evidence, in other words.

Unfortunately, an appeals court later threw out the case on the grounds that the federal government cannot be sued for actions involving national security. The judges said to obtain redress from Congress.

But Congress has not been anxious to act.

In the case of human victims, one argument made for years was that there was no way to tell if a particular cancer victim was stricken because of nuclear fallout or whether that person developed cancer independently. Finally, it was decided that such distinctions could not be made and all victims of certain cancers in the fallout area should be compensated.

That was never an issue with the sheep. The animals began dying of radiation burns within a short time after being exposed in a particularly hot and heavy fallout area.

Despite this clear-cut distinction, a proposal to pay sheep ranchers for their long-ago losses was dropped from the compensation bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush. The reason? Just a feeling in Congress that they didn't want to get involved in the sheep deaths. That is not acceptable.

When a new Congress reconvenes next year, the long-delayed justice toward sheep ranchers victimized by their own government ought to be recognized and paid for.