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Too little, too late?

Too little, too late?

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PAGE — Now that all of Coconino County is considered downwind of atomic testing from the Nevada desert in the 1950s and early 1960s, hopes for compensation in Page are being raised and old wounds are being reopened.

It wasn't until last July that cancer victims who'd lived east of the Colorado River and south of the Grand Canyon were made eligible for compensation, a Justice Department spokesman confirmed early last week.

The boundary expansion brings in victims among the 7,000-some people who lived in Page in July 1962. Among them are Marian Hart, then a 33-year-old elementary school teacher.

Hart was later diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in September 1976. Like several other current or former Page residents who've survived cancer, Hart likes the idea of compensation, however late.

"I admired the — I hope I don't cry — Justice Department for admitting they had made a mistake," she said. "And they wanted to make it right to those of us who were affected by it."

Exposure to radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site is blamed for anywhere from 11,300 to 212,000 cases of cancer nationwide, according to results of a 12-year study released in 1997.

The toll of cancer and leukemia victims was most acute in downwind communities such as St. George and Cedar City in southern Utah. Years of work to break through government denial finally yielded legislation in 1990 that began to compensate people who could prove residency during testing periods.

Cancer victims who lived in downwind counties during a seven-year period in the 1950s and a 32-day stretch in summer 1962 were eligible for $50,000 in compensation. Another part of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act compensates workers in the uranium industry, for $100,000.

Hart and several other downwinders with Page ties have applied for compensation in the past few months and are awaiting rulings. New legislation, introduced by senators Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., would triple the award to $150,000.

As of March 21, compensation awards for downwinders totaled more than $84 million, according to the program's Web site. Uranium miners, millers and ore transporters had received more than $186 million.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Program had received 42 applications for compensation for childhood leukemia and 4,068 for "other downwinder." The approval rate for "other downwinder" was 57.1 percent.

SHIFTING WINDS

More than 100 blasts were set off from 1951-63 from the test site 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The Atomic Energy Commission planned for fallout clouds to drift to lightly populated areas in eastern Nevada and southern Utah.

When winds shifted toward California, tests were called off, according to a 1993 coffee-table book by Carole Gallagher that chronicled the sad tales of cancer victims.

All the while, AEC officials told downwinders they had nothing to worry about. Occasionally they advised residents to remain indoors and to wash the salty tinge from their cars.

But more than 4,000 sheep grazing on rangeland east of the test site died in the days following testing in May-June 1953. They developed lesions and burns and their wool and skin fell off. Some lambs were born with two heads or three legs.

Officials of the since-disbanded AEC wanted prevailing southwesterly winds to drop fallout onto a "low-use segment of the population," according to once-secret records published in Gallagher's book, "American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War."

St. George is 130 miles west of test sites Frenchman Lake and Yucca Lake, and Page is about 250 miles away.

Testing was necessitated by a Cold War arms race and fears that the Soviet Union was amassing weaponry to threaten world domination. Early U.S. tests were conducted on atolls in the Pacific.

The RECP now requires that applicants prove residency in one of 21 designated counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona for a 24-month period from January 21, 1951 to Oct. 31, 1958, or the entire period of June 30 to July 31, 1962.

KIDS PLAYED OUTSIDE

In August 1958, Marian and husband Bruce Hart arrived in Page, a community still being built along with Glen Canyon Dam.

"We were living in a sea of sand," Marian Hart recalls. "Every kid had enough sand to build a dam in their back yard, and it took us a while to make Page green. We were outdoors a lot that summer of '62 in Page. I went to the swimming pool with kids nearly every day."

Near St. George, plutonium-laden fallout with a half-life of 24,000 years is believed to have been buried as deep as 10 centimeters in soil and percolated upward under varied conditions, according to John G. Fuller in his 1984 book, "The Day We Bombed Utah."

Fuller's book speculates that fallout may have caused cancer in 91 of the 220-some cast members of the 1953 Howard Hughes motion picture, " The Conqueror," filmed just northwest of St. George in Snow Canyon.

Four of them — stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and director Dick Powell — had succumbed to cancer by 1979. Fuller cited a plutonium study that showed smokers such as Wayne were far more prone to plutonium-created lung cancer, at a ratio of 20 to 1.

Watching some of the filming were Verle and Rose Palmer and their twin daughters. Verle was working at the Standard Oil service station on St. George Boulevard at the time.

The Palmers, who later moved to Page, eventually had four children. But bronchial pneumonia and an unknown virus claimed the life of daughter Jean at age 17, in 1969. Jean's twin sister later was found to be infertile.

Son Kim, born in St. George in 1956, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1985 at the age of 29. The tumor was benign and was removed, but cancerous cells were later detected near the tumor and he died six years later.

"We have no doubt that Kim's problems had a lot to do with the testing, and we're wondering if the testing may have had something to do with Jean's death, too," Rose Palmer said. "Our kids were like a lot of others in St. George in those days — they played outside a lot and were probably exposed to the fallout."

Kim Palmer's widow, Kolene, is collecting proof of residency toward a possible claim. She's now living with the couple's two children in Durango, Colo.

CANCER RATES SPIRAL

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominated 5,000-population St. George and other southern Utah communities in the 1950s, but their alcohol- and tobacco-abstaining lifestyles were no match for the fallout.

Verle and Rose Palmer lost many friends in St. George, and tales of families that hadn't known cancer for generations but suddenly lost half a dozen to the disease are common in the heart of Utah's Dixie.

"When they bombed Japan, they knew what it did to those people," Verle Palmer said. "They tried to make people feel entirely safe. But we knew people that died."

Children were born without hands, with internal organs on the outside of their bodies and with mental retardation. Rates of childhood leukemia spiraled. Victims lost their teeth and hair, developed neck tumors, diabetes, cataracts, infertility, paralysis and thyroid and lung disorders. A common debilitating condition was spinal fusion — victims were unable to walk or bend over.

On two blocks in St. George, 20 people developed cancer and 14 of them died, Gallagher's book reported. Mortician Elmer Pickett reportedly lost 16 family members to cancer.

Another Page resident, who declined to be named, said, "I come from a Mormon family, and there had been no cancer in the family. Both my grandparents lived to right around 100, then all of a sudden, all this."

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and underwent a double mastectomy. Her family moved to Page in 1957. She investigated possible compensation four years ago but was told she had lived outside the covered area.

The woman said her husband learned at work last fall that she was now within the covered area, and made an application. She's been waiting seven months for an answer.

"I had heard that people were being turned down," said the woman, who sought anonymity for a concern that her efforts would be seen as trying to cash in on her illness. "I'm very frustrated with the government. I believe that's why I got the cancer."

A PRE-DAWN BRIGHT LIGHT

Many of the early bombing victims were soldiers ordered to watch the detonations from near ground zero, and Nevada Test Site workers. Three of the early 1950s shots, named Nancy, Simon and Dirty Harry, accumulated the force of eight Hiroshima blasts, according to Fuller's book.

The Palmers vividly recall one of the detonations. They were driving down old Route 191 near Glendale, Nev., when the pre-dawn darkness turned to bright light, and their 1955 Chevy slipped a gear coming down Mormon Mesa.

On the other side of the Nevada Test Site, Margie DeWitt, husband, Paul, and their children awoke at 4 o'clock one morning in 1957 to watch an explosion. They were living in El Cajon, Calif., near San Diego, at the time.

"We went to the front of the house and looked over the mountains toward the northeast, and we could tell a bomb had been set off," she said. "You could see the light. That's when I realized how powerful atomic power was."

The DeWitts moved to Page in 1961, into a home across South Navajo Drive from the Harts. But Margie DeWitt contracted breast cancer in 1989 and underwent a mastectomy. In July 1962, her eligible period for compensation, she was a 38-year-old homemaker who wasn't too concerned about the bombing.

"We didn't think it concerned us," said DeWitt, who now lives in St. George. "From the beginning, nobody warned us about the dangers. Back in those days, I was busy raising kids and going to ballgames. I don't remember any talk of it."

DeWitt figures she won't be formally compensated, but that the government will write her an open-ended "I.O.U."

For more information about applying for compensation, write the U.S. Department of Justice, Exposure Compensation Program, P.O. Box 146, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, D.C., 20044-0146, call 1-800-729-7327, or e-mail civil.reca@usdoj.gov.

— Arizona Daily Sun

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