MADRID – After 55 years, a group of U.S. veterans may be closer to claiming disability benefits denied after a Cold War accident.
The accident involved the collision of two US planes over Palomares in southern Spain and the subsequent discharge of radioactive material from hydrogen bombs.
On January 17, 1966, a B-52 left a US base in North Carolina with an airborne alert mission called Operation Chrome Dome. The flight path took the aircraft east across the Atlantic and Mediterranean towards the eastern borders of the Soviet Union. The long mission required two refueling flights over Spain.
While refueling, the B-52, which was carrying four hydrogen bombs as part of its payload, collided with the refueling tanker over Palomares, a rural area where locals made a living from farming. The tanker was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited and all four crew members on board were killed. The B-52 broke apart, leaving three of the seven crew members dead. The others pushed out.
FILE – A Navy man jumps off a small landing craft after searching the sea near Palomares, Spain on February 9, 1966.
The remains of three of the unexploded bombs were recovered. A US ship found an intact bomb more than 1,500 meters underwater.
Two of the unexploded bombs released plutonium over Palomares and contaminated an area of 2 kilometers.
Approximately 1,600 U.S. Air Force personnel were sent from a nearby base to clean up the area, but were given little protective gear while working in this rural backwater for weeks.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Victor Skaar of Nixa, Missouri, was 29 years old when he was ordered to help clean up in Palomares – “a place no one had heard of”.
Health concerns were not considered.
Although one of the bombs fell into the sea, Manuel Fraga, minister in the government of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco and then US ambassador Angier Biddle Duke, immersed themselves in a staged photo opportunity to prove that everything was safe.
FILE – U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke (right) and Spanish Minister for Information and Tourism Manuel Fraga wave from cool waters off Palomares Beach, Spain on March 8, 1966.
Decades later, veterans began to suffer from cancer and other illnesses allegedly caused by plutonium during the cleanup.
As some of the veterans began to die, the dwindling group of survivors battled for recognition that their conditions were linked to weeks of collecting rubble on the Spanish countryside.
A statement posted on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website said: “The Air Force states that no adverse acute health effects were expected or observed, nor were long-term risks for an increased incidence of cancer of the bones, liver and liver Lungs (the target organs for plutonium) were low. The Air Force Medical Service reconstructed the possible radiation doses for veterans who participated in the 2013 Palomares accident cleanup using the highest measured doses obtained from biological surveillance at the time of the accident. ”
In a class action lawsuit, Skaar’s legal team at Yale Law School argued that the VA used an inaccurate method of determining exposure that ignored 98% of post-accident radiation measurements made by veterans.
The retired soldiers achieved a groundbreaking victory in the US last month, which meant the VA had to re-examine veterans’ claims.
The decision was an important step in ensuring veterans have access to benefits they have earned while serving.
“After decades of struggle, we are grateful that the court finally listened to our pleas,” Skaar said in a statement.
“We have been ignored and rejected for decades, but this case is about more than just the benefits the VA owes us. It’s about the VA honoring our service and sacrifice that it has been trying to sweep under the rug for more than 50 years, ”he said.
FILE – U.S. Air Force technicians use rubber gloves to pick up pieces of the wreckage and place them in cardboard boxes in Palomares, Spain, on Jan. 28, 1966.
The court ordered the VA to review veterans’ disability benefits and dismissed the Board of Appeal’s allegation that their estimates of plutonium doses were valid.
“This victory is an important win in the struggle to provide these veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they need and deserve,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Remove contaminated land
In Spain, the activists hope that future US President Joe Biden will keep a promise to remove the contaminated land.
After decades of pressure from Madrid, the United States agreed in 2015 to dig up a piece of contaminated soil near Palomares and bury it in a safe area in the desert near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Until the 1980s, Spanish scientists relied on outdated equipment to assess pollution. Some areas are still contaminated and fenced off, but the impact on local residents is not clear.
Spain had asked the US to remove a large amount of polluted land.
“You still haven’t kept the deal, but it is high time this matter was resolved,” José Ignacio Domínguez, lawyer for Ecologists in Action, a Spanish conservation group, told VOA in an interview.
“They said they were removing 27,000 square feet of contaminated land, but we want them to take away the full 50,000 square meters of land that is polluted.”
Ecologists in Action is taking legal action to get the Spanish and US governments to reveal details of the accident that have remained state secrets.
In February last year, the Spanish national court dealing with terrorism, serious financial fraud or national security issues called on the government to overturn the matter.
The Spanish Nuclear Safety Council, a state body, replied that the contaminated soil reclamation plan, which began in 2010, is still ongoing.
“It is finally time to end this chapter, find justice for the veterans and clean up the polluted land,” José Herrera Plaza, a retired journalist who covered the Palomares accident, told VOA.
The Spanish government did not respond to a request from VOA for comment on Palomares.
The VA statement also states: “The Spanish population from Palomares has not reported any health problems in connection with the accident.”