Forgotten 'Downwinders' Demand Federal Compensation

April 15, 2014
Soldiers working near the Nevada test site and people who lived nearby as well as far away have suffered the impacts of radiation fallout.

Congress held a field hearing in Kingman on Monday for forgotten "downwinders" — people suffering from cancer caused by the fallout of atomic testing near Las Vegas in the 1950s. Legislation passed more than two decades ago provided compensation for many people in the region, but left out Arizona's Mohave County and Nevada's Clark County

From 1952 to 1962 the federal government detonated 86 atomic bombs near Las Vegas. Danielle Stephens was growing up on her family's cattle ranch in Kingman at the time. 

"Every time they announced it we would try to get some place where we could see it," Stephens said. "My mom would say it looks just like the aurora borealis. And we rode our horses. We rode up on the hill so we could see." 

As a teenager, Stephens remembers shielding her eyes from the dusty wind after the explosions.  

"There's no doubt about it's what happened to the people," Stephens said. "My husband and I together have 31 members who passed away from cancer." 

And Stephens wasn’t the only one at the hearing with a story like this. Mohave County constable Jean Bishop said her mother told her the family would watch the nuclear weapons tests from their front porch.

"She said she would hold me in her arms as an infant and we'd watch the clouds," Bishop said. "All the other five siblings would be around the front porch area. Didn't have a lot of television back then, so we felt it was entertainment." 

Bishop recently completed breast cancer treatment and her husband is a cancer survivor.  She suspects the radiation exposure caused their cancers. She was born in Clark County near Las Vegas and has lived the rest of her life across state lines in Mohave County. Those are the two counties that don't qualify for federal compensation, even though their cancer rates are higher than neighboring counties that do qualify. 

Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar is trying to change that. 

"One side of the street was in," Gosar said. "One side of the street was out. And when you clearly look at the scientific facts both should be included. Justice should be blind. It should be equal in its application. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here."

Gosar said Mohave and Clark counties were exposed to the highest levels of radioactive fallout. So why were these counties left out of the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 1990? Gosar said it was “just politics” and no one really knows why. He held the field hearing because he wants to extend the legislation to include the forgotten counties. 

Downwinder Sherrie Hanna testified at the hearing. She grew up in northern Arizona in a neighboring county. Her father died in 1983 of esophageal cancer. When Hanna and her sister discovered they were downwinders, they were shocked. 

"It's just been like a nightmare," Hanna said. "When we first learned of the program through my father we couldn't believe something like that could be associated with his sickness. And then when my husband was diagnosed it was just again a devastating blow."

Her husband died last year from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — one of the many diseases that has been linked to radiation exposure — so she applied for compensation and received $50,000.

"It was a big help in fighting the disease," Hanna said. "You give it all back for all that the insurance didn't cover and for travel expenses and everything. It has helped but it's very financially devastating."

Hanna said she's still dealing with the $156,000 in medical bills. She said it takes a long time to receive a government check. 

Gosar said it may take an overhaul of the entire law, but he’s not wasting any time. The window to file claims closes in 2022.