HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – U.S. veterans exposed to radiation in response to a 1966 hydrogen bomb accident in Spain would be entitled to disability benefits denied to them for decades by the Department of Veterans Affairs under laws enacted in Congress Thursday Thursday.
US Senator Richard Blumenthal and Connecticut Democrat Jahana Hayes, who co-sponsored versions of the bill in the Senate and House of Representatives, said they would amend the law to allow veterans of Palomares, Spain, to clean up the accident site. as a “radiation risk activity” that the VA did not do.
“The Palomares nuclear disaster caused immeasurable suffering and damage to soldiers dispatched to clean up radioactive material without adequate protective equipment or warning of serious health risks,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “Fifty-five years later, the VA has not yet identified any radiation risks at Palomares, which limits the services and health care of these well-deserved veterans.”
On January 17, 1966, an American B-52 bomber and a refueling aircraft collided during a refueling operation near the southern Spanish village of Palomares, killing seven of eleven crew members but none on the ground. At the time, the US kept nuclear armed warplanes airborne near the Soviet border when the Cold War was in full swing.
The mid-air collision resulted in the release of four US hydrogen bombs. None of the bombs exploded, but the plutonium-filled detonators on two went off and distributed 3 kg of highly radioactive plutonium 239 over the landscape. It has been dubbed the worst radiation accident in US history.
About 1,600 soldiers were sent to the crash site to retrieve the weapons and clean up the contamination. They were exposed to dangerous radiation daily for weeks or months and later developed various forms of cancer, blood disorders, heart and lung dysfunction, and other diseases. This resulted in a class action lawsuit against the VA by veterans who were denied benefits.
The VA denied them disability benefits based on the Air Force estimates of radiation exposure. Although most servicemen in Palomares provided urine samples for testing in 1966, Air Force officials did not use 98% of those test results and relied on samples later provided, resulting in inaccurate estimates of radiation exposure that were likely much lower than they were, according to Yale Law School students representing veterans in the lawsuit really were.
The VA defended the exposure data. In December, the U.S. Veterans Appeals Court ruled that the VA had failed to determine whether the method of measuring veterans’ exposure to radiation was scientifically sound and ordered the VA to re-examine the disability claims assessment of Palomares veterans. The VA has appealed to a federal appeals court.
VA spokesman Randal Noller declined to comment on Thursday.
Victor Skaar, an 84-year-old Air Force veteran who responded to Palomares and who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, hopes Congress will pass the bill that has been proposed over the past three years but has not stepped off the committee.
“I appreciate any support from Congress that we could get because I don’t think we’ll win in court,” Skaar said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Nixa, Missouri We can only go in court win public opinion. “
Skaar believes Palomares veterans are not getting the attention they deserve because they are a small group now. He estimates there are only 300 or 400 Palomares veterans left alive.
Skaar said he had a blood disorder and developed melanoma and prostate cancer, which were treated successfully. He believes his complaints are related to his service in Palomares.
The bill’s sponsors, which include Democratic U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California, are more hopeful about the legislation this year as it is the first time the proposal has been seen in both the House of Representatives as well as was introduced in the Senate.
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