A victory proclamation eight years ago by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, turned out to be only wishful thinking.
On Sep. 27, 1990, as Congress passed his bill to compensate downwind cancer victims of atomic bomb testing, he declared, "This is a day of justice, a day of freedom for all those who have been ignored for so many years."Actually, it was not a day of justice for all downwinders - nor even for most. It brought only partial justice for a few. And the rest say that is not true justice at all.
A three-part series this week looked at the downwinder compensation program after eight years. Some findings include:
- Only 47 percent of the 6,003 applicants whose cases have been decided so far actually received government compensation.
That means the government paid fewer than half of the people with the best cases. As victims' groups say, thousands more people believe they are victims - but didn't bother to apply because they clearly did not meet legal requirements for payments.
- The myriad reasons that people don't qualify might even be comical if they were not so deadly serious.
Some had the "wrong" cancer. For example, Oleta Nelson - who even had most of her hair fall out after watching a fallout cloud - died of brain cancer. But the law doesn't compensate for it. No link between radiation and brain cancer had been found when the law passed in 1990. Studies have since suggested such links.
Some had the right cancer but lived in the wrong place. Clayton Huntsman has thyroid cancer - which is covered - but didn't live in the few qualifying counties in southern Utah, Arizona and Nevada at required times. He then lived in southern Idaho, which recent studies show had even more fallout.
Some lived in the right place and had the right cancer but can't prove it. Doug Fox couldn't come up with church, tax, phone or other records to prove his cancer-victim mother and brother lived with relatives in Central, Washington County. He found neighbors willing to testify they did, but the Justice Department won't accept such affidavits as proof.
Catharine Adams of Cedar City found the Justice Department would not believe a letter from her doctor saying her husband had a "right" cancer.
Others were too young when cancer developed. Some were too old. Some had non-cancer diseases possibly related to radiation - but only cancer (or some types) qualifies. Others lost livestock to fallout - but compensation is only for (some) humans.
- Compensation didn't even always make the people who received it happy, often bringing jealousy. Elaine Hoyt tells how one woman told her the family of an uncompensated dead sister was more deserving than Hoyt of money she received for breast cancer.
She heard complaints that compensation was like taking welfare, or was cheating the government. Others - including some recipients - wondered if it was taking "blood money."
Others found that while money may be nice, it doesn't bring back a dead parent or child nor cure cancer they are suffering.
- Fixing such problems won't be easy, and may be impossible politically because compensating all possible victims would simply cost too much.
For example, a 14-year study by the National Cancer Institute recently showed the atomic tests brought fallout to every county in the nation - and many areas in northern Utah and nationwide received more than now-compensated areas in southern Utah.
So groups from Idaho to Missouri say they deserve compensation too. As a result, any effort to open up the program to redefine what diseases or areas qualify would allow a big push to expand nationwide. That would cost billions and could threaten to kill even what now exists.
That means changes are not likely.
But that doesn't mean they should not be sought anyway.
Hatch has vowed to seek some small steps. For example, he wants to add other cancers recently shown to have ties to radiation, including some already made part of another compensation program for "atomic veterans."
Victims and others suggest considering some nontraditional forms of compensation - such as simply better funding cancer and fallout research or expanding Medicaid to pay for treatment of radiation-related cancers.
Those may not achieve full justice. And partial justice is an oxymoron. But any step toward improved justice would make a few more people feel they are not being victimized a second time.
Hatch has said that politics is the art of doing what is possible. And, unfortunately, such small steps seem to be all that are feasible for now.