Bill would make veterans involved in 1966 nuclear cleanup eligible for benefits

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is introducing legislation that would make about 1,000 Air Force veterans, who cleaned up one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, eligible for disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

On Jan. 17, 1966, an Air Force B-52 bomber collided with a refueling plane, dropping four hydrogen bombs near Palomares, a small farming village on the Spanish coast. The bombs did not detonate, but two of them cracked on impact, releasing more than 3 billion micrograms of plutonium over the Spanish countryside. That's nearly half the amount released when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II.

In the months following the Palomares accident, the U.S. military ordered approximately 1,600 service members, mainly U.S. airmen, to the site to search for airplane and bomb parts and to remove irradiated crops and soil.

Palomares vet John Garman, 76, of Pahrump, Nev., who arrived on scene within five hours of the crash, said at no time during the weeks he spent there was he offered protective clothing or respiratory equipment. He said that he's developed numerous medical issues, including cancer, and that since 1981, the VA has denied all of his claims for compensation for radiation exposure. Garman was among three Palomares vets who submitted comment as part of a news conference at Yale Law School in New Haven announcing the legislation from Blumenthal.

"They were given no warning or protective gear," Blumenthal said Wednesday in New Haven. "They have been failed completely by the VA, which should be presuming that this kind of exposure entitles them to disability compensation. These benefits are their right."

Yale's Veteran Legal Services Clinic is representing Palomares vets in two separate cases. The first seeks to compel the Pentagon to release service member records, medical records, environmental records and other information related to the accident and cleanup, to help the vets in filing benefits claims. The other is a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims seeking to bring a class-action lawsuit challenging the VA's refusal to provide compensation to Palomares vets.

Blumenthal's bill, the Palomares Veterans Act of 2018, co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would amend current law to include the Palomares cleanup as a "radiation risk activity."

The VA does not currently recognize Palomares as a radiation-risk activity, which would allow vets, who were exposed to radiation during their military service, with certain medical conditions to be entitled to disability benefits.

"The Air Force's methodology for assigning radiation exposure estimates following the cleanup operation did not follow scientific protocol and has been determined unreliable — grave errors this legislation seeks to correct," a news release from Blumenthal's office says.

Given that more than 50 years have passed since the cleanup, Vietnam Veterans of America, which has advocated for Palomares vets to be eligible for disability compensation, estimates there are fewer than 1,000 of these vets still living who would file a claim for benefits. There's been no cost analysis done to see how much it would cost to provide compensation to these vets, according to Blumenthal, who said the cost would be "negligible." His legislation also would make surviving spouses and the children of Palomares vets eligible for benefits paid when a vet's death results from a service-related injury or disease.


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