Downwinders fight for their due

  • DARK MOMENT: Soldiers watch as "Dog," a 21 kiloton nuclear device, is dropped from a bomber in November 1951 at Yucca Flat



A small group of people recently gathered at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in the history of the West. They also came to demand compensation for a lifetime of health problems - compensation the federal government promised to pay 11 years ago.

On Jan. 27, 1951, a strange glow flashing off the red bluffs of southern Utah signaled the birth of the federal government's nuclear weapons-testing program in the Nevada desert. Over the next decade, fallout floated across much of Utah and Nevada and parts of Idaho, causing serious health problems despite government assurances to the contrary.

"The reason why this anniversary is important to us is the U.S. government (has since) admitted the truth," says J. Preston Truman, director of Downwinders, an Idaho-based organization that participated in the demonstration. "Sort of."

Congress' version of admitting the truth was the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which is supposed to provide as much as $150,000 to uranium miners and local residents who became sick from fallout. At least a third of the 690 claims have gone unpaid, however; the program is now broke and handing out IOUs. Many of the victims are dying before they can collect. Critics like Truman blame inadequate funding and bureaucratic delays.

Now, thanks in part to citizen activism, a move is afoot to fix the problems. Three Western Democrats wrote a letter to the Bush administration, asking that the program be moved from the Justice Department to the Labor Department, which administers similar programs.

And Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch got legislation passed last year that allows some previously disqualified victims to sign up for the payments. But Hatch's bid to get full funding for the program was unsuccessful. He is now trying to get $20 million set aside for the radiation victims.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Tim Westby

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