Mary Dickson: Justice for downwinders is long overdue

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Playwright Mary Dickson, whose 2007 play “Exposed” chronicled the effects the above ground nuclear tests had on the downwind population in Utah speaks at launch event for “Downwinders of Utah Archive” at the J. Willard Marriott Libray at the University of Utah Monday October 3.

Sometimes, it seems that I am forever piling up losses. Many of the people I’ve worked with for so many years to raise awareness of what fallout from four decades of nuclear testing did to people across this country are gone.

Michelle Thomas, the outspoken advocate who was such a spitfire and one of the sharpest wits I knew despite years of suffering from various cancers, died in May. Darlene Phillips, who wrote powerful essays and testified about her experience with various cancers, which doctors initially dismissed as “Housewife’s Syndrome,” is gone.

The list of downwinders we lose keeps growing. A Christmas letter from a friend’s wife in Boise announced that the experimental cancer treatment he underwent had not worked.

Preston Truman, a walking repository of information on this shameful chapter of American history, was in the hospital last month diagnosed with another cancer. My heart ached to see this vital, irascible fighter, the man who always told me, “Sharpen your pitchfork; we’re gonna raise hell,” in a hospital bed.

The human costs of nuclear testing are staggering and, even more troubling, they have not ended. Too many people have died and too many have been diagnosed. I talk to people who have been affected, I console them, I advocate for them. I mourn them. I am one of them.

We know that 926 atomic explosions at the Nevada Test Site — each more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima — spread fallout across the entire country. We’ve had the evidence for years. A 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute concluded that every state in the continental U.S. got some level of fallout from testing and that 200,000 cases of thyroid cancer — which I had — are likely linked to testing. That’s just one form of cancer.

In March, a study published in the Journal of Economic History concluded that 500,000 Americans, many of them in central and eastern states hundreds of miles from the Nevada Test Site, died due to fallout that contaminated agriculture.

Yet, how many of them would have guessed that they were victims of fallout? Sadly, the overwhelming majority of downwinders will never know they were sacrificed in the name of national security, deemed expendable by their own government. For decades, the government covered up and denied the consequences of nuclear testing.

When a court case brought by downwinders held that you couldn’t sue the government, downwinders were left to pursue justice through legislative action. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1980 gave $50,000 — which doesn’t cover the cost of one cancer treatment — to those who could prove they lived in one of 21 primarily rural counties during certain years and had one of the approved types of cancer.

Two bipartisan bills to expand RECA have been introduced in Congress. A bill in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, would increase that amount to $150,000 and expand compensation to include all Utah counties, as well as 11 additional states, Guam and the Mariana Islands.

In signing on as a co-sponsor, McAdams wrote, “This effort holds the federal government responsible for the harm inflicted on patriotic Americans who were told ‘there is no danger’ when, in fact, the federal government knew that was a lie.” Utah’s other representatives have not signed on to that bill.

A similar Senate bill that has been heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee would expand compensation to include the entire state of Utah, other western states and Guam. Utah’s senators have yet to add their names.

For those who have suffered for decades and are burdened with huge medical bills, time is running out. Preston Truman used to say, “They’re just waiting for all of us to die.” As the years pass, it seems increasingly like that may be the case. Justice has been delayed for far too long.

Mary Dickson

Mary Dickson is a Salt Lake City writer whose award-winning play, "Exposed,” puts a human face on the human cost of nuclear testing. She was recognized by the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility for her lifetime work on behalf of downwinders.