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64 years after nuclear tests, some downwinders still wait for compensation

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WASHINGTON – Mohave County Supervisor Jean Bishop was just a baby when her mother would take her and her siblings outside their home in Las Vegas to watch atomic explosions light up the sky.

“You know, it was kind of fun,” Bishop said. “Something to do.”

From 1951 to 1962, the government conducted 100 aboveground nuclear tests about 60 miles north of Las Vegas, with radiation from those tests drifting over Las Vegas, Arizona and the rest of the Southwest – where people like Bishop were watching.

Bishop developed cancer in 2013, and like many of those “downwinders” she believes that radiation is to blame for her illness.

Tuesday was the 64th anniversary of the first Nevada nuclear test, and the fourth annual National Downwinders Day – a day to remember the Americans who may have suffered adverse health effects because of the radiation from the tests.

But a group of downwinders in Arizona wants more than just a commemorative holiday – they have been pushing Congress for more than a decade to compensate them for the health woes they say are linked to the tests.

The latest effort comes from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, who said this week he plans to reintroduce a bill that would expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program to cover a group of Mohave County resident who were not included in the original program.

Currently, five entire Arizona counties – Apache, Navajo, Gila, Coconino and Yavapai – are included under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This means that people who lived in those counties during the nuclear testing and later developed cancer or other designated illnesses can apply for $50,000 from the federal government.

The portion of Mohave County north of the Grand Canyon is also included in the compensation program, but the southern portion is not.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, introduced bills in the past to include all of Mohave County in that program, but those attempts have failed.

Gosar tried again last year, but his bill ran afoul of House rules against earmarks because it allocated money for only people in his district, and was ruled out of order.

Gosar hopes to get around that problem this time by adding sponsors and including other counties that he believes were wrongfully left out of the compensation program.

“There are other opportunities here to get this thing right and it’s going to take a little bit more fortitude,” Gosar said Tuesday.

Bishop moved to southern Mohave County as an infant and spent the majority of her life there. But she spent two years in junior high in Payson, which is in Gila County, making her eligible to apply for compensation after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Even though most of my time was spent in Mohave County, just this little short blip of us living in Gila County saved the day,” Bishop said.

Her husband and friends – all of whom are lifelong Mohave County residents – weren’t so lucky.

“There’s a lot of people here in Mohave County that need help with their medical expenses,” Bishop said. “And having recently gone through it, it’s amazing how fast the bills grow and they never seem to stop.”

Eddie Pattillo, the secretary and treasurer of the Mohave County Downwinders organization, had cancer of the urinary tract in 2000 and was diagnosed with colon cancer last year.

He said he doesn’t know what will happen with the latest bill, but that any traction is “great traction.”

“It’s only been 60 years now,” Pattillo said.