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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Senator Blumenthal ’73 Introduces Bill for Veterans Affected by 1966 Nuclear Disaster

Senator Richard Blumenthal ’73 announced on August 29, 2018, the introduction of the Palomares Veterans Act of 2018, a bill to ensure that U.S. veterans exposed to plutonium in the 1966 Palomares disaster finally receive Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits. The bill, co-sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), would amend Title 38 of the U.S. Code to include participation in the Palomares cleanup as a “radiation risk activity,” making Palomares veterans eligible for the presumption of service connection if they develop certain radiogenic conditions.

A press conference took place at Yale Law School on August 29 with members of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which represents Vietnam Veterans of America on behalf of its Palomares veteran members.

The Palomares “Broken Arrow” disaster irradiated the Spanish countryside with plutonium dust after a mid-air collision of Air Force planes dropped four hydrogen bombs over Palomares, Spain on January 17, 1966. The bombs did not detonate, but two cracked on impact, releasing more than 3 billion micrograms of plutonium — nearly half the amount released at Nagasaki at the end of WWII. In the following months, the U.S. military ordered approximately 1,600 service members to the site to search for airplane and bomb parts and remove irradiated crops and soil. It failed to provide service members with appropriate protective equipment, and many were exposed to radiation levels far exceeding current lifetime limits, according to records.

“The Palomares Veterans Act provides long overdue benefits to the servicemembers who selflessly participated in the cleanup of radioactive material in Palomares, Spain. The crash over Palomares is widely viewed as one of the largest nuclear weapon accidents in history — yet the VA has ignored and failed to provide these veterans with the recognition and benefits they deserve. While we can never undo the decades of injustice these veterans have endured, we can do right by remaining survivors and their families by ensuring the VA provides them with full healthcare and compensation. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School has been a powerful partner in the fight to seek justice for veterans who have been wronged by their government,” said Senator Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Armed Services Committees.

“I arrived at the site within 5 hours of the crash. I was assigned to assist other USAF personnel in locating and recovering pieces of aircraft wreckage, and to assist in gathering topsoil of the surrounding area for placement in 55-gallon drums,” said Palomares veteran John Garman. “At no time, during the weeks I was at the crash site, was I ever offered protective clothing or respiratory equipment. I developed numerous medical issues, including cancer. Since 1981, the VA has denied all of the claims I submitted related to radiation exposure.”

Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan said, “VVA has long fought for the VA to recognize and appropriately compensate and treat all wounds, disabilities and illnesses resulting from service — including toxic wounds caused by exposure to chemicals and radiation. The veterans of the 1966 Palomares nuclear disaster have waited over half a century for recognition of their radiation-connected illnesses. Until now, their appeals to the VA have been in vain. VVA is proud to stand with these veterans and with Senators Blumenthal, Feinstein, and Warren in support of Senate Bill 3373.”

John Fabregas, another Palomares veteran, developed prostate cancer which metastasized into other areas of his body, but the VA has repeatedly denied him benefits. This is a cancer for which veterans of recognized ‘radiation-risk activities’ presumptively receive disability benefits. With the Palomares Veterans Act of 2018, Mr. Fabregas’s radiation related illnesses would be covered.

“Thanks to Senator Blumenthal and my own Senator, this bill’s co-sponsor Dianne Feinstein, I am hopeful that Palomares veterans will finally get the support and care they deserve,” said Fabregas. “With this bill, the VA will finally have to recognize the sacrifices we made for our country in the clean-up of this horrific nuclear accident.”

“It was my great honor to serve my country in the United States Air Force for over 26 years ending with my retirement in 1981,” said Palomares veteran Victor Skaar. “I am extremely pleased to hear that Senator Blumenthal is acting to ensure that the VA provides us the recognition we deserve. While there may not be a huge number of surviving Palomares veterans, I intend, to the best of my ability at age 81, to ensure that those that are still with us receive the recognition and benefits they deserve. On behalf of my many comrades, I applaud the Honorable Senator Blumenthal for taking this monumental step forward on our behalf.”

“Currently, the VA does not recognize Palomares as a radiation-risk activity under regulations establishing presumptions of service-connection for disability compensation for certain conditions. These veterans must instead go through a separate adjudicative process, in which their claims are invariably denied,” explained Tomo Takaki, a law student intern in the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “Specifically, the VA has relied on flawed methodology and data that assigns Palomares veterans radiation dose estimates too low to find that their conditions are more likely radiogenic than not. This methodology excludes the highest dose measurements from the site, and has been determined unreliable by leading nuclear physicists in a 2017 analysis.”

Vietnam Veterans of America is the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization dedicated to the needs of Vietnam-era veterans and their families. VVA’s founding principle is “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represents Vietnam Veterans of America in its efforts to secure VA recognition for veterans of the Palomares disaster. The clinic also represents retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Victor B. Skaar in his proposed class action before the U.S. Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims to challenge the VA’s response to his and his fellow Palomares veterans’ disability benefits claims.