After 55 years, a group of U.S. veterans may be closer to securing disability benefits denied to them following a Cold War-era accident they say has now left them with serious medical conditions.
The accident involved the collision of two U.S. aircraft over Palomares in southern Spain and the ensuing discharge of radioactive materials from hydrogen bombs.
On January 17, 1966, a B-52 left a U.S. base in North Carolina on an airborne alert mission called Operation Chrome Dome. The flight path took the aircraft east across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea toward the eastern borders of the Soviet Union. The lengthy mission required two refueling flights over Spain.
During refueling, the B-52, which was carrying four hydrogen bombs as part of its payload, collided with the refueling tanker over Palomares, a rural area where locals lived off agriculture. The tanker was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members onboard. The B-52 broke apart, leaving three of the seven crew members dead. The others ejected.
The remnants of three of the unexploded bombs were recovered. A U.S. vessel located one intact bomb more than 1,500 meters underwater.
Two of the unexploded bombs released plutonium over Palomares, contaminating an area covering 2 kilometers.
About 1,600 U.S. Air Force personnel were sent from a nearby base to clean up the area but were issued little protective gear while they spent weeks working in this rural backwater.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Victor Skaar of Nixa, Missouri, was 29 when he was ordered to Palomares — “a place no one had heard of” — to help clean up.
Health concerns were not taken into consideration.
Even though one of the bombs fell into the sea, Manuel Fraga, a minister in the government of Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, and then-U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke, took a dip to prove everything was safe, in a staged photo opportunity.
Decades later, veterans began suffering from cancer or other ailments that many alleged were caused by exposure to plutonium during the cleanup operation.
As some of the veterans started to die, the dwindling band of survivors fought for recognition that their conditions were linked to weeks spent collecting debris in the Spanish countryside.
A statement on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website says, “The Air Force states that adverse acute health effects were neither expected nor observed, and long-term risks for increased incidence of cancer to the bone, liver and lungs (the target organs for plutonium) were low. The Air Force Medical Service reconstructed the possible radiation doses for Veterans who participated in cleanup of the Palomares accident in 2013, using the highest measured doses obtained from biological monitoring at the time of the accident.”
In a class action, Skaar's legal team from Yale Law School argued that the VA used erroneous methodology to determine exposure, which ignored 98% of the measurements of radiation taken by veterans after the accident.
The retired servicemen scored a landmark victory last month in the United States, which meant the VA must reexamine claims by veterans.
The decision was a major step toward ensuring veterans have access to benefits that they earned while serving.
“After a decades-long struggle, we are grateful that the court has finally listened to our pleas,” said Skaar in a statement.
“We have been ignored and denied for decades, but this case is about more than just getting the benefits the VA owes us. It is about the VA honoring our service and our sacrifice, which they have tried to sweep under the rug for more than 50 years,” he said.
The court ordered the VA to review veterans' eligibility for disability benefits and rejected the Board of Veterans' Appeals' contention that their estimates of the doses of plutonium were sound.
“This victory represents a major victory in the fight to provide these veterans and their families the health care and benefits they need and deserve,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Removing contaminated land
Meanwhile in Spain, campaigners hope incoming U.S. President Joe Biden will deliver on a pledge to remove the contaminated land.
In 2015, after decades of pressure from Madrid, the United States agreed to dig up a patch of contaminated soil near Palomares and bury it in a secure area in the desert near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Until the 1980s, Spanish scientists relied on outdated equipment to assess the pollution. Several areas are still contaminated and fenced off, but the effect on local residents is not clear.
Spain had asked the U.S. to remove a larger amount of polluted land.
“They still have not honored the deal, but it is high time that this matter was settled,” José Ignacio Domínguez, a lawyer for Ecologists in Action, a Spanish conservation group, told VOA in an interview.
“They said they would remove 27,000 square meters of contaminated land, but we want them to take away the full 50,000 square meters of land which is polluted.”
Ecologists in Action is taking legal action to try to make the Spanish and U.S. governments reveal details of the accident, which have remained state secrets.
In February of last year, Spain's National Court, which deals with terrorism, major financial fraud or matters of national security, asked the government to lift the lid on the affair.
Spain's Nuclear Safety Council, a state body, responded by saying the plan to recover the contaminated soil, which was started in 2010, still has not been completed.
“It is finally time to bring this chapter to an end, to find justice for the veterans and to clear away the polluted land,” José Herrera Plaza, a retired journalist who has covered the Palomares accident, told VOA.
The Spanish government did not reply to a request from VOA for a comment on Palomares.
The VA statement also said, “The local Spanish population from Palomares has not reported health problems related to the accident.”