New Bill Offers Aid to Vets Injured During 1966 Clean-up of Nuclear Bomb Accident
September 3, 2018 Leo Shane III / Military Times & Dave Collins / The Associated Press
Veterans exposed to radioactive debris more than five decades ago haven't made much progress in the courts to have their illnesses recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, so now they're hoping Congress can intervene. A bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal would force VA to offer care to vets involved the 1966 cleanup of a calamitous nuclear-bomb accident in Palomares, Spain,that may have exposed more than 1,600 American service members to deadly levels of radiation.
Lawmaker Presses for Quicker Action to Help
Military Clean-up Crews of 1966 Nuclear Accident Leo Shane III / Military Times
The clean-up site established after a United States' B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker over the Mediterranean on January 17, 1966. Palomares, Spain.
WASHINGTON (August 30, 2018) -- Veterans exposed to radioactive debris more than five decades ago haven't made much progress in the courts to have their illnesses recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, so now they're hoping Congress can intervene.
On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., joined a group of advocates to unveil new legislation that would force VA to offer presumptive status to veterans involved the 1966 cleanup of an accident involving nuclear bombs in Palomares, Spain, an incident that may have given radiation poisoning to more than 1,600 American service members.
"These veterans were exposed to nuclear materials without any warning or protection that today would be considered routine," Blumenthal said. "The quickest way to get them what they deserve now is for Congress to act."
Veterans involved in the accident have been unsuccessfully petitioning VA on their case since the mid-1970s, after a host of strange cancers and other illnesses began appearing among individuals involved in the Palomares incident.
In January 1966, seven airmen were killed and four more injured when a B-52 crashed into a KC-135 during a refueling mission off the coast of Spain. The B-52 was carrying four nuclear weapons at the time of the accident, and two of them exploded near the town of Palomares, spreading radioactive plutonium over hundreds of acres.
US officials quickly ordered military personnel into the area to collect contaminated debris, crops and soil in an effort to repair the damage.
But veterans involved in that clean up say they were given no protective clothing or respiratory devices, and told very little about the potential long-term health effects about exposure to the nuclear material.
In 1966, the US accidentally dropped 4 nuclear bombs on Spain
John Garman, one of the first airmen on the scene, said he remembers loading thousands of 55-gallon drums with contaminated topsoil that was sent back to the United States for safe disposal.
"The civilians who buried those barrels in South Carolina were covered under federal law, but not us," said Garaman, who developed bladder cancer at age 35 and multiple respiratory problems in later years. "Since I first filed in 1981, the VA has denied all of my claims."
Department officials have long insisted that not enough scientific evidence exists to classify all of the health problems as service-related illnesses, and spotty Air Force records of the work and contamination levels have added to the problem.
Last December, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School filed suit against VA to force recognition of the illnesses and benefits payouts, but that case has yet to move forward. Officials from Vietnam Veterans of America said many of the affected troops are elderly or deceased, meaning further delays could prove tragic.
Blumenthal called VA's refusal to address the Palomares issue the latest in a long line of controversial decisions related to wartime exposure.
Recently, VA has come under criticism for its opposition to grant presumptive benefits status to so-called "blue water veterans" who served in ships off the coast of Vietnam and claim extensive Agent Orange contamination in their daily work. Several veterans groups have also accused the department of not doing enough to document illnesses connected to the use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
VA officials have warned that deivating from long-held scientific standards for benefits awards could create financial problems for the department, by opening up support payments to tens of thousands of additional veterans.
Blumenthal said he does not believe this group presents a significant new financial burden for the department. But, he also called the cost issue irrelevant.
"This is about the principle of helping these veterans," he said.
Leo Shane covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies.
HARTFORD, Conn. (December 11, 2017) -- Veterans who say they responded to a 1966 accident involving US hydrogen bombs in Spain and then became ill from radiation exposure asked a federal appeals court on Monday to allow a class action lawsuit against the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Yale Law School students in Connecticut filed the request with the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on behalf of veterans who sought disability benefits from the VA but were denied. The students represent Air Force veteran Victor Skaar, of Nixa, Missouri, and want to include other veterans who believe they deserve VA benefits.
The motion names Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin as the defendant. The VA said Monday it hadn't seen the filing and couldn't address it.
On Jan. 17, 1966, a US B-52 bomber and a refueling plane crashed into each other during a refueling operation near the southern Spanish village of Palomares, killing seven of 11 crew members but no one on the ground. At the time, the US was keeping nuclear-armed warplanes in the air near the Soviet border as the Cold War was in full swing.
The midair collision resulted in the release of four US hydrogen bombs. None of the bombs exploded, but the plutonium-filled detonators on two went off, scattering 7 pounds (3 kilograms) of highly radioactive plutonium 239 across the landscape.
The 1,600 servicemen who were sent to the crash site area to recover the weapons and clean up the contamination were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation daily for weeks or months at a time, according to the court motion filed Monday. Many of the servicemen later developed various forms of cancer, blood disorders, heart and lung dysfunction and other sicknesses but were denied disability benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"This class action seeks to compel the VA to acknowledge that veterans at Palomares participated in a radiation-risk activity that would make any radiogenic conditions they developed presumptively service-connected," said Derek Mraz, one of the Yale students working on the case. "The VA acknowledges this service connection for many other atomic veterans."
Skaar, the Air Force veteran, said he suffers from a blood disorder and developed melanoma and prostate cancer, which were successfully treated. He said he believes his ailments were related to his service in Palomares.
Skaar, 81, said he and other military members responded quickly to the Palomares accident and did not wear protective clothing or masks as they determined the scope of the contamination and "cleaned" it up. The cleanup involved removing topsoil in some areas and hosing down buildings with water.
Skaar said he and his fellow servicemen did what they were ordered to do without complaint at Palomares and now feel betrayed by their government.
"It's absolutely ridiculous to see how we have been treated," he said. "We're all hurt. We were ignored, absolutely ignored."
The Yale students said they believe this is the first federal appeals court case involving Palomares veterans. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which hears appeals of VA denials of benefits, only recently was given authority to hear class action cases, they said.
The law school students also sued the Department of Defense in October on behalf of veterans groups seeking to compel it to release records relating to the Palomares accident, including environmental testing data and urine testing results. A department spokesman said he could not comment on pending litigation.
The Yale students said original testing showed that many Palomares veterans were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, but a 2001 report commissioned by the VA concluded those results were "unreasonably high." And in 2013, VA officials used the 2001 report to conclude the veterans' exposure to radiation wasn't high enough to qualify them for free VA medical care and other benefits.
The students said the report and the 2013 conclusion are flawed.
US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said the VA needs to take another look at the veterans' claims.
"These veterans were exposed to dangerous radiation while they faithfully served our nation in the cleanup of the hydrogen bomb accident," he said in a statement. "They deserve a fair and consistent process for determining veterans benefits related to such exposure."
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