Miner Editorial | Mohave downwinders owed government assistance, and an apology

Back in the early 1950s, at the Nevada Test Site 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the government of the United States bombed the United States.

About 100 nuclear bombs were exploded above ground in Nevada between 1951 and 1958. They attached them to towers, dropped them from planes, didn’t give safety much thought. Early tests were even promoted in Las Vegas as tourist attractions.

Longtime Kingman residents say you could see the mushroom clouds from mountain overlooks here. What you couldn’t see was the radiation.

The feds at first claimed there was nothing to fear.

“Fall-out levels have been very low, only slightly more than normal radiation which you experience day in and day out wherever you may live,” the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission wrote in a 1955 brochure intended for the folks who lived near the test site.

But we eventually learned that was not the case. The personnel who observed the tests, the men who mined and milled the uranium, and the people who lived downwind from the testing site – the “downwinders” – began falling ill. Above-ground testing was banned in 1963.

Bombing us was the first, but perhaps not the worst, offense perpetrated by the federal government on the residents of Mohave County. That came in 1979 when Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act outlining geographic areas where residents could be eligible for compensation.

Most of Mohave County, including the Kingman area, was inexplicably left off the eligibility list.

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) called it an “injustice.” And he is correct.

Now is a chance to right that wrong, and bring some relief to some long-suffering people.

Companion bills have been introduced in Congress. The Downwinders Parity Act of 2021 was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona). A similar bill in the House was introduced by Gosar and Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Phoenix).

The measures would extend the time period to file RECA claims to 2027, but more importantly, it would add the residents of Mohave County, as well as Clark County in Nevada, to the eligibility list.

And it’s certainly justified. According to a 2005 study by the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, radiation exposure to the thyroid of Mohave County downwinders was in some cases three times higher than readings found in downwinders in other Arizona counties that RECA covers.

Kelly testified at a Senate hearing that “over the years, Mohave downwinders have worked hard to compile health records that have revealed an extraordinarily high number of fatal cases of childhood leukemia in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Eligibility for RECA is limited to people with certain radiation-related cancers and severe illnesses that can prove they were physically present in an “affected area” during the time the nuclear tests were being conducted. Those approved receive a one-time, lump sum payment of $50,000.

Congress should approve this legislation without delay. And they should say they’re sorry for taking so long.

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