'Downwinders' Make One Last Push For Money
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Old-timers in a remote desert of northwest Arizona still talk about the mushroom clouds. A half century ago they could ride on horseback up the nearest hill to watch the nuclear weapons tests being held next door in Nevada. Today, they also talk about the cancers that came after those tests. Eventually Congress agreed to pay compensation to most of these downwinders, except they left out one area in Arizona - one closest to the test site.
Now after decades of activism that may finally change, sparked in part by the recent death of the woman who led the fight for the downwinders there. Daniel Kraker of member station KNAU reports.
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DANIEL KRAKER: Elenore Fanire was only 33 years old when she developed ovarian cancer. She was in her mid-50s when both her dad and younger brother died of cancer linked to radiation. She made it to 65 before she died recently of pancreatic cancer.
Mr. JOE HART: I'm going to issue this challenge to every one of you. Let's not let Elenore's life be in vain.
KRAKER: Joe Hart grew up with Fanire and spoke at her funeral.
Mr. HART: Let's get behind this day and understand and make these people pay for what they've done, residents of (unintelligible).
KRAKER: Nearly a decade ago, Fanire founded the Mohave Downwinders to persuade Congress to add the southern part of the county to the act. The largest city here is Kingman. Long-time resident Danielle Stephens showed me around.
Ms. DANIELLE STEPHENS: It's overwhelming that one town could be so inundated and most of the people were from this same age group. It's not a coincidence.
KRAKER: Before meeting me, Stephens jotted down a list of family members who've died from cancer. She counted 21 out of 25.
Ms. STEPHENS: This next house, my cousins lived there. The daughter passed away from a brain tumor. Their sister passed away from a brain tumor.
KRAKER: When the Downwinders Bill was voted on 20 years ago, the government never admitted the nuclear tests caused specific cancers, but since then it's paid out nearly $700 million to downwinders and given free medical screenings, unless, like Daniel Stephens's family, you lived in the southern part of Mojave County.
Ms. STEPHENS: It makes me feel like they just want to ignore us until our generation dies out and then they save all this money.
KRAKER: So, why wasn't the southern part of Mohave County included in the first place? No one knows for sure, but ask just about anyone in Kingman and they'll tell you it was because of bureaucratic bungling. In the original legislation, they say, the county was spelled with a J instead of an H. So a staffer omitted it from the bill thinking it referred to a county in California. Seriously, this all could be because of a typo?
Representative TRENT FRANKS (Republican, Arizona): I just don't see any other explanation for it.
KRAKER: That's Trent Franks, the Republican congressman who represents Mohave County.
Rep. FRANKS: Because Mohave County is the closest county to that test site. It's right in the wind path. And ultimately the cancer rates are more dramatic in Mohave County than they are anywhere else.
KRAKER: Indeed, cancer rates in Mohave County are the highest in the state, and the government itself has estimated that downwinders here were exposed to three times as much radioactive fallout as people in a neighboring county that is covered by the federal program. The difficulty it takes an act of Congress to revise the statute.
Now with Elenore Fanire's death and after several years of pressure from constituents, Congressman Franks will introduce a bill this month to add the southern part of Mohave County to the Downwinders legislation. That would be welcome news to Helen Graves.
Ms. HELEN GRAVES: There's all these needy people and so many have died. You know, when they could've helped their lives.
KRAKER: The 81-year-old post office worker has devoted their life to helping people in Kingman with cancer, ever since she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her early 20s.
Ms. GRAVES: So, sure, it's a big disappointment and it just goes on and on and no one does anything.
KRAKER: With tears streaming down her cheeks, Graves says she's been to more funerals than she can count in Mohave County, so many that she stopped going. She didn't even go to Elenore Fanire's, but she hopes her death may finally lead to downwinders here getting recognition from the federal government.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.
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