Much work remains on righting the wrongs of 40 years ago, that is, compensating victims of the cancer and economic losses caused by detonating an arsenal of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere upwind from Utah.
Don't overlook the monumental achievement of the sponsors of the bill to compensate some fallout victims and uranium miners. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, achieved a victory that had seemed impossible. Their persistence over many years paid off.Still, the bill does have four disturbing gaps:
- The worst is that ranching families in Cedar City whose herds were wiped out by fallout in 1953 were cut from the compensation.
- It subtracts settlements that some families of uranium miners received from a private company because of the miners' lung cancer. That is, the amount of the settlement with the private company must be deducted from any federal payoff.
- Sections of the population were arbitrarily cut from the bill because they didn't live in southern Utah. To qualify, Utahns must have lived in Washington, Iron, Kane, Garfield, Sevier, Beaver, Millard or Piute counties when open-air testing took place, 1951-1962.
But the Wasatch Mountains caused fallout from many of the shots to fall in northern Utah. Evidence in one of the fallout trials showed that soil studies discovered higher levels of radioactive plutonium and cesium in Salt Lake Valley than almost anywhere but the southwestern part of the state.
- The easiest problem to rectify, assuming Congress has a conscience, is that so far no money has been appropriated for the limited compensation that was approved.
"We think that in a supplemental (measure) we can get a small appropriation for . . . '91, maybe $5 million," Owens said for this column. He said this initial funding might reach as high as $10 million. For the total payments, estimates have ranged up to $100 million.
"My hope would be in '92 that we can get a very significant appropriation," Owens said.
Meanwhile, the attorney general is required to design the process for compensation within six months. The Justice Department, which has funds for the job, must draft the rules for applying for compensation and getting the applications approved.
Fallout is definitely implicated in the deaths of thousands of Cedar City sheep, a disaster that was a terrible financial blow to the ranching families.
Sheep studied at the time had high levels of radiation in their internal organs and even beta burns from fallout particles on their backs and around their muzzles, where they had grazed contaminated grass.
A study conducted in the past 15 years, calculating initial doses based on the readings and known decay rates of radioactive material, showed the sheep were hit with lethal amounts of fallout. They had grazed large areas of rangeland hit with debris from above-ground nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site.
The government took the position that malnutrition killed them. The ranchers filed suit in 1955, but the government stonewalled: nothing could be allowed to interfere with the country's atomic weapons research.
In 1956, the government managed to win the case. Attempts to reopen the suit were thwarted. Yet today, using the original findings, there is no doubt that fallout was to blame.
So the stockmen aren't helped by the compensation bill. "The House Judiciary Committee took it out in an amendment," Owens said. He said he wasn't there on the committee to stop it, and did not get a chance to really argue against it.
Dan S. Bushnell, the Salt Lake lawyer who has championed the ranching families since 1955, said, "We have a stronger case of causation than anybody.
"Fact is, Harold Knapp (a researcher who concluded in 1979 the fallout did kill the sheep) says had (the government) not gone off on the wrong track, the sheep were the best monitors of how much fallout there was."
The government "absolutely" should compensate the ranchers, he said.
Until those gaps in the law are filled, the tragic impact of America's negligent above-ground nuclear testing remains heavier than it needs to be.