Mohave Valley Daily News: Testing program's legacy Bishop testifies before House subcommittee on expansion of RECA

Jean Bishop can remember watching the spectacle of nuclear explosions filling the skies in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas. She is all-too-familiar with the impact those explosions had, spreading hazardous radioactive particles with the prevailing winds.

"Over and over, my parents were told the testing was safe as our family stood on the front porch and watched in horror as the sky was filled with dust," said Bishop, a member of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, who was a young child when the United States' nuclear testing program frequently lit up the horizon with explosions. "While at the time, we were encouraged to celebrate the advances of our government finding methods to protect U.S. citizens — and we did — unfortunately, we were blind to the fact that radioactive fallout would kill and sicken numerous members of our family.

"Regrettably, the radioactive fallout not only impacted our family, but families for hundreds of miles surrounding the test site."

Bishop, who grew up in a remote desert area near the test site about 60 miles north of Las Vegas, was the star witness at Wednesday's hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to consider amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, extending compensation to victims of radiation exposure in Clark County in Nevada and Mohave County in Arizona.

"Far too long, residents across northwestern Arizona have been forgotten and victimized by the federal government," said Rep. Greg Stanton, a Phoenix Democrat and sponsor of H.R. 612, the Downwinders Parity Act of 2121. "In fact, (Wednesday's) hearing is the first time in more than two decades that many Arizonans — known as Downwinders — have even had the opportunity to be heard in the House. Time is running out for these Americans. It's long past time for the federal government to take responsibility for its actions. It's time for Congress to take a hard look at the boundaries created under RECA so that those living in Mohave County and Clark County can finally receive the justice they deserve."

Bishop's testimony, streamed to Washington from her office in Kingman, was personal and poignant.

"Between 1951, which was the year of my birth, and 1963, the United States government, through the Atomic Energy Commission, detonated hundreds of these nuclear bombs near our home in the Nevada desert," she said.

While the testing program was seen as necessary and a boon to U.S. defense technology, it had an undisputable impact on thousands of lives of people living near the testing sites. When the tests began, the general public didn’t understand the health risks associated with radiation exposure. Certain cancers and other medical conditions have been linked to radiation; many of those diseases have been reported disproportionately by people who lived near the testing area during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Bishop and her family became all too aware of the scope of those risks.

"My oldest sister, Judy, she died of brain cancer in 1968," Bishop testified. "I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. And during my treatment, a year later, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and that was in 1998."

That, she said, was the impact on her immediate family.

"At last count, 32 people from my husband's family have died from various types of cancer," she said.

Similar stories from residents elsewhere in Southwest — and scientific evidence backing up their claims — prompted Congress to act in 1990. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act established a trust fund to provide lump-sum payments to individuals who had developed certain cancers and other serious diseases that are presumed to be the result of their exposure to radiation from the above-ground weapons testing or activities connected to the mining, processing and shipping of uranium.

Those payments, ranging from $50,000 to people living in the vicinity at the time of the testing who later developed specific forms of cancer, to $100,000 for uranium miners and processors who became sick, have totaled more than $2 billion; there have been more than 34,000 claims approved.

For some reason, though, much of Clark and Mohave counties were excluded from the boundaries originally specified by RECA or subsequent amendments. Stanton's bill is the latest attempt to rectify what many consider to be an egregious oversight.

"I'm certain that the committee members are aware the act still doesn't include part of Clark County immediately adjacent to the testing site and the southern part of Mohave County, which is directly downwind, even though the cancer rates are much higher," Bishop said. "I respectfully request that you extend RECA and expand the coverage area to include Clark County and Mohave County."

The original RECA boundaries included only the portion of Mohave County north of the Grand Canyon, even though it also applied to Apache, Navajo, Coconino, Gila and Yavapai counties, considerably farther away. Similarly, only a small part of Clark County was within the eligibility boundaries although five other Nevada counties were. Ten counties in Utah were included.

Just how many people expansion would affect isn’t clear. The population of Mohave County was roughly 8,000 between 1951, when testing began, and 1962, when it ended. More than half of that population lived in and around Kingman, which is roughly 135 miles from the Nevada test site. Downwinders now would be in their 70s or older.

The populations of what are now Bullhead City and Laughlin was estimated at less than 3,000 at that time.