State Politics

'I promised ... that I wouldn't give up.' Documentary shows downwinders' plight

Tona Henderson is pictured inside of the Rumor Mill Bakery in Emmett, Idaho. Tona is featured in a new documentary called "Downwinders.” After nine years of a frustrating fight to bring what he sees as justice to Idaho downwinders, Sen. Mike Crapo is hoping a new documentary will help spark the effort.
Tona Henderson is pictured inside of the Rumor Mill Bakery in Emmett, Idaho. Tona is featured in a new documentary called "Downwinders.” After nine years of a frustrating fight to bring what he sees as justice to Idaho downwinders, Sen. Mike Crapo is hoping a new documentary will help spark the effort. Idaho Statesman file photo

Editor's note: This story originally published on Aug. 9, 2013.

Nine years ago, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo made a promise to victims of nuclear fallout from Cold War weapons testing in Nevada. Idaho had four of the five hardest-hit counties in the nation, and those residents were entitled to the same federal benefits paid to those in 21 counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, Crapo said.

When Crapo spoke at the band shell in Emmett City Park in 2004, the government had made "compassionate payments" of $50,000 to victims of 19 types of cancer, totaling $360 million under the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Now, the figure is $855 million. But not a dollar has been paid to Idaho downwinders, whose counties were not originally included by Congress because the extent of fallout was unknown.

"It's terribly frustrating because of the human impact," said Crapo, who has introduced a string of RECA expansion bills since 2005, none of which has received a hearing. "We haven't been able to get the appropriate level of national support to move it."

On Saturday, Crapo will be back in Emmett, where a new documentary, "Downwinders," will be viewed at the sold-out Frontier Theater at 3 p.m. The senator will lead a 5 p.m. public hearing at Computators, 117 E. Main St.

The leading figure in the film, Downwinders founder Jay Truman of Malad, was exposed as a child in southern Utah and is a lymphoma survivor. Truman, 62, has been an activist since he was a teen, when he called fallout "The Demon." He will be in Emmett and plans to use the film and a series of citizen-launched hearings across the West to "drown the appropriate committee members" with calls for a hearing.

"This is just the start," said Truman. "We're going to keep this up."

The 'hot twin'

The 1-hour, 37-minute movie is a work in progress, about 95 percent complete, said co-director Tyler Bastian of South Jordan, Utah, who will appear at the screening. Bastian and co-director Tim Skousen are submitting their work to top festivals.

"We're not activist filmmakers, we're not Michael Moores," said Bastian. "But we hope people walk away thinking something was wrong and people were hurt and something needs to be done."

The change agents, Bastian said, are folks such as Crapo, Truman and Tona Henderson, who leads the downwinders group in Gem County. Gem County was No. 3 in the nation for iodine-131 fallout, according to a 1997 National Cancer Institute study. Iodine-131 is associated with thyroid cancer, a RECA-covered disease.

That trio appears in a 5-minute section of the film. Truman notes that Meagher County, Mont., was No. 1 in i-131 fallout, followed by four Idaho counties: Custer, Gem, Blaine and Lemhi. Truman grew up in No. 6, Washington County, Utah, a RECA county.

Growls the white-bearded descendant of Mormon pioneers: "Those five counties that were hotter than we were - they don't get one damn dime in compensation, they don't get any health screening. And the government would just prefer they would just go away and die quietly."

Truman convinced the filmmakers to shoot in Emmett, which he calls the "hot twin" of his hometown, Enterprise, Utah. A February meeting in Henderson's Rumor Mill bakery is shown in the film, with Truman outlining his grass-roots strategy. "Let's hold the first public hearing here in Emmett!"

"Good idea," says Crapo, who also notes that his late brother's cancer might have been connected to fallout.

John Wayne and fallout

Threaded through the film are scenes from "The Conquerer," a 1956 epic starring Wayne as Genghis Khan and produced by Howard Hughes. Filmed in Snow Canyon, near St. George, Utah, the picture was included in the 1978 book, "The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time."

Among Wayne's lines, delivered in cowboy drawl, "I feel this Tartar woman is for me; my blood says take her."

In 1980, "The Conquerer" was the subject of a People magazine story suggesting Wayne was a victim of a fallout. At the time, about 90 members of a crew of 220 had contracted cancer and 46 had died. Red sand flies during the movie's cavalry battles, horses and soldiers tumbling. For continuity, Hughes had 60 tons of sand trucked to Hollywood for studio work.

"Downwinders" raises doubts that fallout killed Wayne, a heavy smoker who died of stomach cancer in 1979. But also featured are tragicomic government films alleging no public health risk.

Truman, who began his advocacy at 13 in a correspondence with Nobel Prize chemist and peace activist Linus Pauling, says he thinks fallout played a role in Wayne's death. He reads from Atomic Energy Commission minutes from 1955 that acknowledge St. George was "plastered" with fallout.

Promise keeping

Henderson, the bakery owner and activist, shares Crapo's frustration about the lack of progress but is heartened by his persistence. His new bill is S. 773, which would expand RECA to Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico, as well as to all counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It also would triple payments to $150,000 to downwinders to establish parity with uranium workers and testing site employees.

Crapo's co-sponsors include Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and the four Democratic senators from Colorado and New Mexico. Staff from the offices of Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, will be in Emmett on Saturday, and Rep. Raul Labrador also might attend.

"I don't know if it will ever go anywhere," said Henderson. "But I promised Sheri Garmon that I wouldn't give up."

Garmon was the 1970 Emmett High valedictorian who died of cancer in 2005 at age 53, after having sparked Crapo's interest in RECA. She had one of her last coherent conversations with Crapo, who updated her on legislative strategy.

"We are not losing focus on this issue," Crapo tells the crowd in the film's passage on Emmett.

The key, Crapo said in an interview, is expanding support beyond the West, where fallout was highest. He said he almost enlisted Hillary Clinton as a co-sponsor when she was in the Senate, in part because New York had high i-131 doses. "Hopefully, we'll be able to make significant progress and the film will be a tool for that," he said.

The filmmakers hope "Downwinders" will be accepted for the prestigious 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but also are applying to other festivals.

Wherever the movie lands, Crapo plans to put a DVD into the hands of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and repeat his request for a hearing. Leahy and Crapo were the lead sponsors of this year's reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

"We've got a history of working together on issues with very high human impact," Crapo said. "So there's a real possibility there."

Downwinders history

The U.S. government tested nuclear bombs in the Nevada desert during the Cold War. Most of the radioactive fallout occurred during 90 above-ground tests between 1951 and 1962.

Wind blew radioactive clouds north and east, and iodine-131 fell on pastures and alfalfa that fed cows and goats. Children younger than 5 were hit hardest, with doses three to seven times higher than average because they drink more milk and have small thyroids.

In 1990, Congress admitted a link between fallout and cancer. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act said the tests are "presumed to have generated an excess of cancers."

RECA apologized to injured Americans and provided $50,000 in "compassionate payments" for downwinders and survivors for their involuntary exposure in the name of national security. Payments went to victims in 14 counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Thirteen cancers were covered.

In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released a study estimating iodine-131 exposure in the Lower 48 states. Four Idaho counties were among the top five nationally for fallout; 13 others got higher-than-average i-131 than the average covered counties in Utah.

In 2000, Congress amended RECA to add seven counties and six diseases. But Idaho was left uncovered, in part because the Idaho delegation took no action.

In 2004, Idaho downwinders revived the issue when the National Academy of Sciences was taking public testimony on a congressionally-funded update. With pressure from Idaho politicians, a hearing was held in Boise. All four members of the Idaho congressional delegation stayed for the entire seven hours.

But in 2005, the NAS said there was no scientific reason to link Idaho or any specific region to compensation. Rather, the scientists recommended a probability standard for radiation exposure to be weighed case by case, regardless of where sickened people lived at the time of testing.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, continued to follow the existing model, proposing expansion of RECA to heavily exposed states. His current bill covers all of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

To date, $1.8 billion has been paid to about 27,600 victims and family members. Of that, $855 million went to about 17,100 downwinders; $587 million to 5,900 uranium miners; $201 million to 2,800 onsite participants; $154 million to 1,500 uranium millers; and $31 million to 300 ore transporters.