With the 100th Congress fading rapidly toward adjournment, a House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing Friday on another plan to compensate victims of atomic testing fallout and of unchecked radiation in uranium mines that supplied the bomb makers.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, offered their compromise bill to give civilians payments of between $50,000 and $100,000 for the suffering resulting from exposure to radiation.Owens and Hatch recited the medical evidence that downwind from the test site in Nevada, radioactive particles rained on unsuspecting populations after many of the explosions. Owens told Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Barney Frank, D-N.Y., how 30 of 50 miners in just one mine - the Vanadium Corp. of America workings in Marysvale - contracted lung cancer in the 30 years since the mine was operating.
One of those men, Arden Higgins, 54, appeared before the subcommittee to tell his story. He said he worked in the VCA mine between 1953 and 1959 and never smoked cigarettes. He lost a lung to cancer five years ago and told the panel in a halting voice that he watched his fellow miners die, one by one, until only he and one other are left alive.
"It makes me wonder how much longer I have," Higgens said.
The Justice Department sent Deputy Assistant Attorney-General Steven R. Valentine to testify against the Hatch-Owens bill. Valentine said "it would represent a most unwise and undesirable precedent" if Congress were to provide compensation to the alleged radiation victims.
As have the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, the Department of Justice "would recommend a veto" of compensation legislation, should it pass Congress, Valentine said.
Under questioning by Frank, Valentine said the department does not concede that those who claim they are victims of fallout or uranium mining radiation have any evidence that radiation caused their cancers.
In response, Frank said only "I am incredulous."
He directed Valentine to have the department make a report to him on legislation that would answer the department's criticisms of the Hatch-Owens bill. When Valentine asked Frank to "put that in writing," the chairman fired back, "Wouldn't your boss believe you if you told them I asked for a report?"
Frank told Hatch and Owens that there is no chance for action on their bill this year, but he promised it would be high on his priority list in the next Congress.
Owens has fashioned his bill after a payment the government made to families of those killed when two shipments of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded on April 16 and 17, 1947. The explosions killed 570 people and injured 3,500.
There are strong similarities between the fertilizer explosion and the death of uranium miners.
Like the uranium ore, the fertilizer was produced and distributed at the request and under the control of the federal government.
As with the mining, the federal government knew the fertilizer was highly explosive. Yet, the government did not require it to be marked.
Documents show the federal government knew up to 70 percent of the uranium miners who mined in the 1950s and '60s would die from lung cancer if the mines were not ventilated. Yet the government did not require ventilation of the mines or attempt to warn the miners.
Worse, the federal government lied to the miners about their safety, Owens said in a letter to his colleagues this summer. Documents discovered in federal archives show the federal government was "deliberately and knowingly putting at risk the lives of those miners. Government scientists and physicians were even conducting studies of the miners' radiation exposure, knowing the miners would die but were told not to warn the miners of the dangers to which they were being exposed."
Like the miners, the survivors of those killed in the fertilizer explosion tried to sue the federal government for negligence.
Like the miners, the survivors of the fertilizer explosion lost because the court deemed that failure to warn the victims of the danger was part of the federal government discretionary function, and therefore, not subject to suit.
But eight years after the explosion, Congress voluntarily offered payments of up to $25,000 for deaths, injuries or property loss suffered in the explosion.