Jane Westwood, 79, of Circleville, Piute County, is typical of the 3,000-plus people denied compensation for the cancer and death that they blame on atomic bomb tests. But they soon may have new hope.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is attempting to rectify inequities in an earlier compensation bill that may help people such as Westwood.Her husband, George, worked outdoors as a farmer during years of atomic testing upwind in Nevada. He died in 1961 of colon cancer, the first in his extended family ever to have cancer, leaving her a young widow with five children.
When Congress offered compensation for some downwinders in 1990, West-wood said, "I applied twice. But they said I didn't qualify." That's because colon cancer wasn't on the list of types of cancer for which Congress agreed to pay.
"I thought maybe I would get something because other people around were getting it, especially for breast cancer. I figured if they did, I should too," she said. "We always believed the tests caused the cancer."
Now, Hatch says that later scientific studies suggest people such as Westwood indeed should have been compensated, but compromises he was forced to make to pass his original compensation law prevented it.
He wants to rectify that now - which should cheer the 3,133 of 6,008 applicants (52 percent) who had been denied compensation as of last December. Advocacy groups say thousands more did not apply because they knew they don't qualify under current rules.
Hatch says he soon will introduce a bill to qualify several more types of cancers, including colon, for compensation. It would also cease requirements that victims of some cancers prove they are not smokers or heavy coffee drinkers. And it would reduce how long miners had to work in uranium mines to qualify.
Hatch is quick to say the fixes will not address all the possible unfairness with the compensation program. However, they will make the only improvements he thinks may be politically possible for now. Even accomplishing that will be a tough fight, he said.
His new effort comes a few months after a Deseret News series looked at problems with the compensation program. It found many people lived a few miles in the wrong direction, were too old or too young when exposed or had the wrong type of cancer to qualify. Or they had the right type at the right time but lacked proof to substantiate their claims.
Hatch said he is not looking at fixing all such problems, including the big one of extending coverage to all areas hit by heavy fallout. Compensation is now limited to a few counties in southern Utah and small areas in Arizona and Nevada, even though fallout was found to be as heavy in places such as Salt Lake City, Idaho and even Missouri.
"I'm not sure we can expand it (geographically). If we try, we'll get claims from Rhode Island to California and from North Dakota to Texas. There has to be some geographical limit," Hatch says.
"It's a very uphill fight, and if we have thousands and thousands of new cancer claims, it will be a huge cost to the budget, and a huge revenue loss that we would have to find off-sets for. That won't be easy at a time we're trying to balance the budget," he said.
So the more minor changes Hatch is considering include adding the following types of cancer for downwinders: male breast, lung, colon, brain, urinary bladder and salivary gland.
The government's Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations has in years since the 1990 law passed more firmly determined that those cancers may be caused by radiation exposure.
Congress already added several to the list for compensation for veterans exposed to radiation as soldiers. With that, Hatch said he feels he can make a case that it is only fair to also expand the list for downwinders.
Hatch is also looking at eliminating requirements that leukemia and pancreatic cancer victims prove they were not heavy coffee drinkers since scientific studies suggest that is not a factor.
He's also looking at dropping requirements that those suffering from thyroid cancer had to be exposed before age 20, and that those with breast cancer had to be exposed before age 40.
He is also considering making it much easier for uranium miners to qualify. Currently those who were smokers must show they were exposed to 300 or more "working level months" in the mines, while non-smokers must show they were exposed to 200.
Hatch is considering dropping that considerably - to 40 working level months - a level studies suggest essentially doubled their chances of contracting lung cancer compared with people who were not exposed.
Documents have shown that the government knew those working in unventilated mines to obtain uranium for bombs faced extreme risk of developing cancer, but it never warned them. Most were American Indians.
President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments determined in 1995 that such miners "became laboratories for studying radiation damage to humans." The committee also urged easing of compensation requirements for those workers.
Former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who represented uranium miners and downwinders as a lawyer since early court cases, said he's pleased Hatch is preparing legislation to expand compensation, which he has long urged, and hopes it is introduced quickly.
"I've been in touch with a lot of Utah people who have been anxious and waiting for Congress to act," Udall said. "They are patriotic, good people who deserve action soon."
While legislation has been drafted, Hatch said he wants to seek more co-sponsors before introducing it. He already has signed on some powerful allies such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Dominici, R-N.M., and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., the only American Indian in the Senate.
"It's an uphill battle, because it's an issue that affects very few states and few people, and there's never been absolute proof that any person's cancer came from fallout," Hatch said.
Still, he said, he will try to have a hearing this year, especially if he can have the bill referred to his own Judiciary Committee. And he said a possibility exists it could pass this year - possibly by attaching it to other legislation.
"A lot of people feel that the prior law did not take care of some really just claims . . . and we want to do the best we can now, even though we did the best we could with the original law . . . I thought it was a miracle it passed," Hatch said.
That gives Westwood hope that her long-hoped-for compensation might come. "I would really appreciate it. I'm a widow, and I could really use it," she said.