KINGMAN, Ariz. – Danielle Stephens grew up on a cattle ranch here in the 1950s. She rode horses, spent her days in the sun and, like many people in the area, delighted in watching mushroom clouds spring up beyond the mountains.
It was the middle of the Cold War, and about 150 miles north of Stephens’ ranch the federal government was engaged in a nuclear testing program. In Las Vegas, Nev., and the tiny towns of northern Arizona, people were beguiled by the atomic explosions that lit up the sky.
The Soviet Union had recently developed its first atomic weapon, and in response the United States ramped up its testing. Over 12 years, the U.S. performed 100 atmospheric tests at the Nevada Test Site.
“I can remember that it was a big deal, kind of a carnival atmosphere,” said Danielle’s brother, Dan Bishop. “We got to see the dust clouds and on occasion we felt the wind. There was a lot of talk.”
Today, Stephens and Bishop contend that radiation from the tests was the cause of cancer in dozens of their relatives and friends. At last count, 33 of their family members had died of cancer.
“At that time we thought it was something great to be occurring because we already knew that the atomic bombs were very important,” Bishop said. “We didn’t realize how important they were and how much danger they were.”
Despite data showing that Kingman, like the rest of the southern portion of Mohave County, was exposed to double the amount of radiation recorded in other Arizona counties, the health risks are yet to be acknowledged by the federal government.
Left out of program
It’s been more than 50 years since the United States stopped above-ground testing in Nevada. Since then, the federal government developed a compensation program for “downwinders” in certain counties in the Southwest, including six in Arizona.
Kingman residents, however, were not among them – and they say they don’t know why.
With the people who witnessed the tests now 60 and older, they’re still seeing friends develop cancer and they’re still confused as to why they weren’t included in the program. They’re fighting for what they believe is their right to compensation.
“Kingman’s too close – just a few miles,” Stephens said. “The Nevada Test Site is 135 miles (away) … I just feel someone has to continue to try.”
In the ’50s, Stephens and Bishop were out on a cattle drive when they were caught in the middle of an atomic wind.
“There was five of us on horseback and Daddy says ‘Here comes that dust, you guys. Ride as fast as you can and get low,'” Stephens said.
But it was too late. All five of them were dusted on their horses while out in the Cerbat Mountains. Three of them, including Bishop, later developed cancer.
Bishop said he didn’t realize the potential dangers of radiation until he became a reserve deputy sheriff in 1957. Members of the military came to the sheriff’s department in Kingman and asked the officers to wear thermoluminescent dosimeters, small cylindrical containers, on their pocket lapels to test radiation levels.
“Military came and gave them to us and we met in the sheriff’s office and they (the military) picked them up,” Bishop said. “That’s all we knew. Well, that’s all I knew.”
The dosimeters showed the military how much radiation each person received. That information was never communicated to the department or the individuals who wore the devices.
“I remember that nobody said anything about any kind of sickness,” Bishop said. “We knew it was an atomic blast, we knew there was a test site, but we didn’t know the ill effects. Nobody told us that.”
Researching health risks
A tiny town full of miners’ daughters and ranchers’ sons, Kingman didn’t seem to be a major concern for the Atomic Energy Commission. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kingman’s population was just over 4,500 in 1960.
After the effects of radiation in Japan during World War II, the U.S. government sought to understand radiation health risks as one of its missions for the Nevada Test Site, said Allan Palmer, director of the National Atomic Testing Museum.
“There were enormous radiation consequences that went with that,” Palmer said. “I don’t think they really fully expected or knew that would happen. This was all brand new.”
In order to get a better understanding of radiation, the government placed animals, buildings and mannequins, donated by J.C. Penney and other department stores in Las Vegas, at different distances from ground zero during nuclear tests to evaluate the effects.
But while officials were testing on dummies and sheep, they didn’t realize that the radiation was capable of traveling into Arizona and across the country, subjecting civilians to these tests.
One year in the late ’80s, Dan Bishop attended nine funerals. Aunts, uncles, cousins: All cancer deaths.
When Bishop would show up at the cemetery, the mortician would tell him to grab the keys to the four-door sedan and take the pallbearers to the mortuary and cemetery.
“That’s getting too frequent,” Bishop said.
The town’s sheriff, Frank Porter, was one of the first to develop leukemia after the nuclear testing began. It was then that Eddie Pattillo, a native of Kingman, realized that the atomic blasts could actually be hurting them.
Pattillo developed cancer of the urinary tract in 2000, at the same time his sister, Sharon Davis, developed a rare cancer that spread to multiple organs before eventually causing her death in 2007.
When she was in school, teachers let Davis and her classmates run outside during recess and catch a glimpse of the mushroom clouds, Pattillo said. When she found out she had cancer, she was sure it was because of the radiation, he said.
Studies of survivors of the atomic blasts in Japan and medical professionals with increased exposure to radiation show higher levels of leukemia and thyroid cancer in these groups, according to the American Cancer Society.
But there’s also no proving if any given cancer was caused by radiation or any other number of causes.
A political error
In 1990, nearly 30 years after the last above-ground test was performed at the Nevada Test Site, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, allowing people who developed certain cancers and lived in certain downwind counties during the testing to receive $50,000 from the federal government.
Originally, the only part of Arizona included in the act was the sparsely populated Arizona Strip, the part of Mohave County north of the Colorado River.
In 2000, the act was amended to add Apache, Navajo, Gila, Coconino and Yavapai counties. The southern portion of Mohave County, where Kingman is located, was never added.
Laura Taylor, a Prescott lawyer who specializes in Radiation Exposure Compensation Act claims, said leaving Mohave County off the act was a political error. Until recently, Mohave County’s congressional representation was often based in the Phoenix metropolitan area, over three hours away.
“I think there was just a lack of representation on the part of some politician,” Taylor said.
In 2003, at the prompting of hundreds of Mohave County residents, former Gov. Janet Napolitano asked Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency Director Aubrey Godwin to evaluate the radiation levels in each county.
He found that certain levels of radiation were being compensated, while other, higher levels were not, including southern Mohave County.
According to numbers compiled from the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute, residents of the southern portion of Mohave County had between 0.6 and 0.7 average rads per capita exposure to the thyroid. Gila and Yavapai counties, both of which are compensated under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, had 0.3.
Godwin recommended that Congress set a baseline radiation level and compensate all U.S. counties that fall above that level.
“I’m not trying to decide whether they should or should not be compensated,” Godwin said. “Congress made that decision. That was a policy decision that Congress made to compensate. My only point was, if they’re going to compensate at this level in one county, they ought to compensate everywhere in the state or in the United States.”
‘Money grab’ denied
There are critics of the Mohave County Downwinders, many of them in Kingman, who say the group is looking to make a quick buck off of the government.
But Stephens said that the people who say their efforts are just a money grab have never experienced $10,000 medical bills coming month after month.
“Nobody is going to walk away with a Cadillac,” Stephens said. “They might be able to pay a few of those bills, but it’s not much.”
Since 2010, Arizona Republican Reps. Trent Franks and Paul Gosar and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have introduced bills that would include all of Mohave County in the compensation program.
Gosar’s bill, introduced in 2013, was the only one to be heard in committee. It was then ruled out of order. Gosar said he’s not sure why none of the bills has moved forward.
“We’re very frustrated in how to get compensation and have the fairness of RECA (the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act) being applied to the people that it’s responsible to, which would be all of Mohave County,” Gosar said.
After meeting with congressional attorneys, Gosar was told the only way to get the whole of Mohave County included is to set a baseline radiation level and compensate all counties with radiation levels higher than that level. He’s planning to team with politicians in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, in an attempt to gain more support for the issue. Gosar said he planned to introduce a bill in early 2015.
Even if the bill passes the legal tests, it still faces a difficult journey to win approval from Congress, Gosar said.
“Rural communities are often stepchildren of big urban districts,” Gosar said. “You see a lot more fanfare for stuff that happens east of the Mississippi. We need to have our same day in the sun in which to remedy some of the problems that exist.”
Mohave County’s eligibility in the RECA program is a political issue. It’s a matter of writing a bill in the right way and persuading enough politicians to vote for it.
To Dan Bishop, who said he has attended more than 30 funerals in Kingman, and Pattillo, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in October, cancer is far from political.
“It’s such a small detail,” Bishop said. “It means so little to most politicians. It’s just like a toothache. They hope it will go away.”